By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice, etc. 5/13/10
We’re now three weeks into what has become the most environmentally destructive industrial accident in US history, with BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well leaking nearly a quarter of a million gallons a day into the fragile Gulf of Mexico eco-system. That’s where the US domestic seafood industry hauls about half of its catch, anchoring the seaside economies of a thousand-mile coastline.
The accident wasn’t a long shot. To the contrary, given the deregulation of the offshore oil industry and the sociopathology of the “corporate persons” who run it, such a calamity has been a probable likelihood for quite a while. And environmentalists have been warning us that we’ve gone to reckless extremes to feed our oil addiction. Still, as with the quagmire in Iraq, the collapse of Wall Street, the failure of New Orleans’ levies, our unfolding climate chaos, the junk food-induced obesity epidemic, and CIA blowback in the form of jihadist terrorism, it sucks to be right.
BP’s slick is now the size of Puerto Rico, and growing by the hour. But that’s just the surface of the story. The spill is too large to clean up, too large to contain, and spreading across the northeastern Gulf of Mexico like a vast melanoma. BP’s solution, so far, has been to make it disappear into the ocean like magic, like we’ve been unsuccessfully trying to do with industrial toxins since the advent of industrialization. The strategy now is to dump a mélange of toxic chemicals into the toxic goo to emulsify it and make it disperse into the sea as tiny droplets that can invisibly suspend in water or drop to the ocean floor. Historically, oil dispersants toxic the human liver, kidney, and neurvous system have made their way into the ocean food chain after being used to “clean up” oil spills such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez eco-catastrophe.
Dumping toxins into toxins is just pissing in the wind, on a massive scale. BP might be a global oil giant, but they’re in over their heads here. By any realistic accounting, the monetized damages from this spill, obscene as the concept may be, are greater than the net worth of BP. When it comes to mitigating the damages they’ve caused, think of BP as an acronym for “Beyond Possible.” BP, a private corporation in business for one purpose, to accumulate capital, cannot handle this disaster on any level. By its own admission, as of press time, it’s spending only $10 million per day, or less, on what should be a much more massive cleanup and remediation effort. Again, it’s pissing in the wind, while the Gulf Coast ecosystem and fisheries industry chokes on its oil. BP has pumped its profits out of the Gulf. Now the US government is having to federalize the “cleanup,” much like it had to clean up the mess in the financial sector. Only here, “too big to fail” refers to the Gulf ecosystem.
So where was the “drill, baby, drill” noise machine as this ecological and economic disaster unfolded? For the first week after the April 21 drilling rig explosion ignited this leak, the silence was deafening. Nothing. Hardly a mention of the unfolding calamity. The ostrich approach: Maybe it would go away. Then the comics hit the airwaves.
Rush Limbaugh, on April 29, acknowledged the unfolding disaster, assuring his “dittoheads” that it was no big deal. Quoting his own science consultant, some sort of “doctor,” Limbaugh reported that, “There’s natural seepage into oceans all over the world, from the ocean floor, of oil, and the ocean’s pretty tough, it just eats it up.”
Sort of like Rocky, Iron Man, or the Hulk, I suppose: This is our ocean, damn it, and it ain’t no pansy Gulf of Sissies ocean.
He went on to explain, “It’s natural. It’s as natural as water is. Well, the turtles may take a hit for a while, but so what?”
Is your eco-lesson for the day clear now? Just chase your Oxycontin with a cold glass of crude oil or perhaps a cocktail of emulsifiers, then back the Land Rover over a few turtles and hit the highway.
Even the venerable New York Times stepped into the same muck, recently quoting the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, who reassured us that “The sky is not falling…it isn‘t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.” Shortly after that Times piece came out, the not-for-profit investigative reporting consortium Propublica reported the Times’ source wasn’t as indifferent as it appeared. The innocent-sounding Gulf of Mexico Foundation interlocks at the board of directors level with Transocean Corporation, the entity that actually owns the BP-operated oil rig that exploded.
But there’s more to this story. Offshore oil rigs are failsafe, remember? So this accident couldn’t have happened. Or at least it couldn’t have been an accident. So we get this viral headline, “US Orders Blackout Over North Korean Torpedoing of Gulf of Mexico Oil Rig,” referenced by syndicated noise-show host Michael Savage, and repeated ad nausea in the blogosphere. Variants on the theme have Venezuela bombing the rig to knock out competition to their Citgo franchise, and China doing the nasty deed to sink the US economy, which, last I knew, they owned in partnership with the Saudi monarchy.
Always up for a hoot, Limbaugh joins into this fracas, warning his audience on Aproil 29, “If this was an accident or an act of sabotage, the regime will use the occasion of this event for its own political advantage…Remember, this rig blew April 21, which is one day prior to Erf [sic] Day.” So the pro-offshore drilling Obama administration, which three weeks earlier opened up much of the US coast to reckless drilling, will somehow benefit from a drilling disaster. Limbaugh goes on to compare the spill to what he describes as “hoaxed” emails making up global warming—which, remember, is as fake as a leaking oil rig. “One oil rig blows up, and it proves we can’t dig, drill, or find more oil,” he explains. “What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig?” He adds, “I’m just noting the timing here.”
So it wasn’t that cagey Obama after all. And it wasn’t the North Koreans, the Chinese, or Citgo. It was environmentalists who blew up BP’s drilling platform and caused the worst environmental disaster in US history. Because, well, that’s what environmentalists do. This would be akin to blaming Rwandan Tutsis or Nazi Holocaust victims for their own genocides—because they wanted sympathy. Way to go, Rush. Must’ve been environmentalists. They’re probably buying all those SUVs, too.
A more likely culprit would be the Dick Cheney-connected Halliburton Corporation, which had just completed cementing work on the drilling rig prior to its explosion. Last year, investigators in Australia implicated Halliburton in a similar blowout of an oil rig off the coast of that country. It seems Halliburton was also doing cementing work on that rig when it similarly caught fire and subsequently spilled crude oil into the ocean for 10 weeks. Rush must have missed that story. Or were environmentalists the culprits there as well?
While on the subject of Dick Cheney, it’s timely to remember his role in convening the secretive energy industry meetings where oil, coal, and nuclear power executives authored the Bush/Cheney administration’s energy policy. This would be the dictum that partially deregulated the offshore drilling industry and removed much of its governmental oversight. The resulting lax regulatory atmosphere put BP, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, “entirely in control” of its own offshore drilling operations.
According the the Washington Post, the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) exempted BP’s subsequently exploded oil platform from National Environmental Policy Act environmental review. This was just two weeks before it exploded and sank to the bottom of the Gulf, uncapping the leaking well. MMS employed a regulatory provision that waives review for projects with a “minimal or non-existent” environmental impact. If you live in Rush Limbaugh’s world, this spill would qualify as such. As for the regulatory agency that made this determination? This is the same agency whose regulators were busted in 2008 because, according the the New York Times, they “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”
In the BP case, money was more likely the corrupting influence, as the company spent $16 million lobbying the government in 2009 alone. Even now, they’re currently lobbying against a proposed MMS rule that would require offshore drilling rig operators to develop and audit safety and management plans that would include hazard analyses, worker training, safety protocols, and, radical as it may sound, emergency response plans. On April 9, 12 days before the catastrophic explosion, BP wrote to the feds in support of the waiver policy that exempted the failed platform from a comprehensive environmental review, explaining that such waivers are needed to “avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays.”
Sometimes, it appears, corporations, like other sociopaths, have to be protected from themselves.
Make no mistakes about it, the British multinational BP corporation is a criminal enterprise—this despite their successful efforts to reposition their brand as “green” and “Beyond Petroleum.” The watchdog group, Public Citizen, cites BP for having one of the worst safety records of any oil company operating in the United States, having paid out, during the past decade, nearly half a billion dollars in fines for criminal convictions involving environmental crime, indifference to worker safety, and manipulating energy markets. The caveat is that while the Supreme Court argues that corporations have the same rights as individuals, they don’t bear the same responsibilities. Hence, this entity we know as BP can repeatedly engage in and get convicted of gross crimes against their workers and our environment—in essence, crimes against humanity—and evade jail. After all, there is no Mr. or Ms. BP to lock up.
In 2005, for example, the US Chemical Safety Board cited the company for responsibility in the deaths of 15 workers blown up in a Texas City refinery explosion where the company’s extreme cost-cutting in the area of safety cost these workers their lives. The company subsequently pled guilty to felony charges, paid a “cost of business” fine, and went on with their reckless ways. A year later they pled guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge and paid another fine after corrosion in a poorly maintained pipeline resulted in another spill in Alaska. A congressional investigation blamed that spill on “draconian” spending cuts made by the massively profitable corporation. These two criminal convictions happened as BP earned record profits and cut safety spending across the board. This depraved indifference to human life in the pursuit of monetary gain falls within the clinical definition of sociopathic behavior.
In the case of the current spill, evidence indicates that the installation of a half-million-dollar acoustic safety backup valve could have prevented this leak. The valves are required in countries such as Brazil, but, thanks in part to BP’s hyper-funded lobbying efforts, aren’t required here. Way to go, BP.
If Exxon’s behavior after its 1989 Valdez disaster is any indication, expect BP to balance their “too little, too late” cleanup spending with a tidal wave of PR and advertising expenditures. This will be a double-edged sword, reinforcing the notion that this horrible unlikely accident was a tragic aberration for a “green” brand like BP, while buying acquiescence and silence from a cash-starved media industry anxious to be on the receiving end of BP’s greenwashing largess.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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