Lobbying Congress for favorable legislation: Millions
Cost of deep-sea drilling: Billions
Destruction of an ecosystem: Priceless
On April 20th an attempt to cap the Deepwater Horizon, a British Petroleum rig in the Gulf of Mexico, resulted in an explosion. Eleven workers were lost and the subsequent failure to shut off the oil flow and contain the rapidly spreading slick has resulted in an ecological catastrophe of epic proportions.
As the oil continues to flow and a slick of over 2,000 square miles collides into the Gulf Coast, comparisons to the Exxon-Valdez destruction of Prince William Sound in Alaska begin to fall short. Right wing media, unable to fathom the breadth and depth of this catastrophe, unwilling to accept that we have brought this on ourselves, no longer able to justify the usual “so what” response to environmental crises, have decided to focus on conspiracy theories. On the level of pure speculation, the Limbaugh crowd has raised the specter of a terrorist attack.
While I am not one to automatically dismiss conspiracy theories, the purpose of these speculations is as clear as the once pristine waters of Prince William Sound. It is a distraction and one that we, as caretakers of the environment that nourishes us, can ill afford. What has happened in the Gulf of Mexico is the destruction of an ecosystem, damage that will require decades if not centuries to repair, as the result of shortsighted greed. Even the chemicals now being used to disperse the oil slick have long ranging destructive potential. Even if you think it was a terrorist attack, in the age of terrorism shouldn’t that be a part of the equation? Shouldn’t we consider that possibility before we erect new targets off our shores?
When President Obama declares that British Petroleum is responsible for this disaster and will be held accountable for its costs, he is not telling the whole truth in either case. The government is responsible for approving the Deepwater Horizon and ensuring that all measures were taken to preclude the possibility of disaster. That clearly was not done. It turns out the drilling operation went deeper than authorized but where were the inspectors? It turns out a safety valve to turn off the oil in the event of disaster was not installed though it is required off the shores of other nations. It apparently was considered too expensive.
As for the costs of this catastrophe, British Petroleum with $292 billion in revenues as of 2007 (ranking it the fourth richest company in the world) will pay only a fraction of the long-term damage. For every dollar they provide in relief to the fishing industry and the myriad businesses that depend on them they will spend two dollars fighting it in court. For every dollar they spend in cleanup they will spend another paying a team of publicists and pseudo-scientists to prove that the damage after all is not so bad.
Twenty-one years after the Exxon-Valdez disaster there is still plenty of Exxon oil polluting the shores and waters of Prince William Sound. Some say the initial cleanup effort was designed to hide the oil rather than to extract it. From day one Exxon treated the spill as an image and media problem with economic consequences rather than an ecological disaster. There are still species that have never recovered. The human victims of the spill have had to fight the constant misinformation and delays of the Exxon media and legal teams. No one really knows the long-term consequences of the spill but we do know it was far more extensive than we were led to believe at the time.
We can expect the same with British Petroleum in the aftermath of this new catastrophe. From the beginning BP followed the same script as Exxon after the Valdez spill. Understate the extent of the disaster, capture the media, assure the public with misleading information, put a friendly face on a heartless corporate machine, always have an answer or three answers to dazzle the reporters, and always radiate confidence.
BP has friends in Washington. It allocated sixteen million dollars to lobbying congress in 2009 and another three and a half million in the first quarter of 2010. While generally favoring Republicans on a ratio of three to two, the leading single recipient in 2008 was Barack Obama. When you compare these figures to the billions in profits you would have to consider money well spent.
The record when it is finally revealed will show that BP lied about the risks of deepwater drilling. BP lied about the oil leaking in the initial stages of the disaster. BP lied about the extent of the leakage. BP lied about their contingency plans for a worst-case scenario. BP lied about accepting full responsibility for the costs of this catastrophe. And BP will continue to lie and mislead and pump misinformation through the media to an unknowing and disbelieving public.
The potential destruction of this catastrophe goes well beyond commercial fisheries, the loss of wildlife and the damage to the tourist industry. It goes beyond the restaurants and packing plants that depend on the shrimp and fishing operations. It goes beyond the damage to the reef and the coastline. It goes beyond the harm to the already depleted wetlands and the migrating birds that seek refuge there. It goes beyond anything we can imagine. That is the nature of ecosystems. Everything is interconnected. It will be decades or longer before we can even begin to assess the full extent of harm.
If we had the authority to liquidate British Petroleum and use all its assets and resources to mitigate the harm, it would still be inadequate.
And the oil continues to flow.
Beyond the ecological disaster, consider the sheer audacity of believing you could drill through 13,000 feet of rock beneath 5,000 feet of water without unreasonable risk. Was it, in fact, a controllable risk or an inevitable disaster? Was BP gambling permanent environmental damage against short-term profits? How is it that an international corporation based thousands of miles from the scene of the crime was empowered to take that kind of risk with the Gulf ecosystem?
Now BP is trying to deflect the blame to Transocean Ltd., the world’s largest operator of deepwater wells. Certainly some measure of blame can be shared not only with Transocean but possibly Halliburton who had a hand in the operation as well, but as long as BP was taking the lion’s share of profits then BP must accept the lion’s share of blame.
In a functioning democracy at least some of that blame must fall to the people. To some indefinable extent we are also responsible for allowing greed and the Drill Baby Drill crowd to have its way with our government.
Someone should have stopped them but it was not in their interest.
The latest legislative effort to deal with the Gulf crisis is a proposal to raise the liability cap from $75 million to ten billion. Dollars to a dime it does not happen and even if it does it is an insult for anyone to think that the damage from this catastrophe should be capped at ten billion (a fraction of the cost of our wars).
Have we learned nothing at all? It is clear that after Exxon-Valdez we learned very little indeed.
This time the least we can learn is that Beyond Petroleum is just a slogan.
If this nation does not move toward renewable energies with the urgency and vigor that time and circumstance demand, then we must forfeit our claim as a great nation – no less the greatest nation on earth.