This is an op-ed piece. It’s not the news. You know the news already: We're two and a half months into an ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, precipitated by an industrial explosion that killed 11 workers and wounded 17 others. Numerous attempts to cap the broken oil line at the wellhead a mile below have failed, and we're still over a month away from the completion of relief wells that’ll probably terminate the flow.
We've known for some time that running our country on fossil fuels invites clear and present danger. The question was how big an oil spill it’d take to get our attention. A spill in the Gulf of Mexico is incredibly difficult and expensive to cap, and its repercussions are devastating in both immediate and enduring timeframes. Thousands of endangered birds and turtles drown in sludge. Tens of thousands of barrels a day flood the Gulf, and chemical dispersants are ineffective and damaging in their own right. Containment alone costs $100 million, but that doesn't pay for ecological repairs or the impact on fishing communities. By the time the spill is repaired, 140 million gallons of oil will escape into America's favorite fishing hole. It's an ecological nightmare that plays out over an entire summer. Surely that's enough to convince us to take immediate, meaningful, sustainable action, right?
Except it wasn't. Here's the punch line: That paragraph wasn't about the Deepwater Horizon. It was about the Ixtoc-1 spill, which occurred in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche 31 years ago. It began on 3 June 1979 and released an average of 20,000 barrels a day till finally capped on 23 March 1980. That’s no secret. People watched it play out on the news over dinner, night after horrible night, till the story lost its sex appeal and everyone simply forgot about it. As George W. Bush once opined, “Fool me once,...shame on you. Fool me...You can't get fooled again.” The BP spill is our "again." Surely we won't need a third cataclysm to impel us, at long last, to take serious action?
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire of 20 April 2010—two days before Earth Day—did not come as a surprise to every interested party. Granted, the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (now renaming itself the Bureau of Ocean Energy) was satisfied by a 2009 BP report that found it "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur." If such a spill did occur, according to the BP report, some oil might reach shorelines, but "no significant adverse impacts are expected." That's good enough for us, said the federal watchdog agency, and when the Deepwater well exploded 14 months later, four executives from BP and Transocean (the contracting company that owned the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform) were on board to celebrate its safety standards. But warning signs had been noted daily, and BP staffers communicated those warning signs clearly by email. The writing on the wall was so undeniable that when the drill column blew that tragic day, Transocean installation manager Jimmy Harrell screamed, "Are you f&(*ing happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen!"
If British Petroleum was deplorable for its sloppy, dishonest safety protocols, it was damnable for its attempts to hide the extent of the spill. On the day of the explosion, BP announced the well was leaking a "mere" thousand barrels a day. (A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons.) Three weeks later, BP acknowledged there may be as many as five thousand barrels escaping per day, but insisted there was no way of judging for sure. Well, there is a way of judging for sure: It's a branch of math called particle image velocimetry, and when Purdue engineering professor Steven Wereley ran the numbers, they said 60 thousand barrels a day. That’s an Exxon Valdez disaster each week--maybe two or three. BP officials said those numbers were based on erroneous data. The mathematicians objected they used BP’s own data. At time of writing, the most reliable estimates are back up to 60 thousand gallons a day. That’s over two and a half million gallons of oil every day, 76 million gallons a month, for at least four months. And while relief wells will bring the spill to an end, David Rensink, the president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, says it’s a trial-and-error process and that the odds of success on the first attempt are “virtually nil.”
In a Senate subcommittee hearing, BP chairman Lamar Mackay was asked if his company lowballed those estimates to minimize losses. Mackay said he didn't know; and besides, it didn't matter because BP was committed to paying for the spill, no matter how high the price tag. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Representative who asked Mackay that question, noted later that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandates fines based on volume of oil spilled, a fact Mackay knew all too well. "I think they were hoping they could fix it before they would be forced to allow the world to measure it," Markey mused.
How toxic is oil? A single part per million kills wildlife, and one gallon can cover four acres of ocean surface. That's bad enough, but BP insists on using the chemical dispersant Corexit, which some experts believe is more toxic to animals than oil alone. It makes humans sick, too: nausea and fainting in the short term, kidney and liver damage if allowed to accumulate. BP rejected the use of safer compounds because the company "does not have a stockpile of the other dispersants...and the manufacturers tell us that they cannot produce the requested volume for 10 to 14 days or more." The cleanup, of course, will take much longer than 14 days, but BP stood by Corexit for the whole job, even after clear EPA demands. On 20 May, the EPA called for a 75 percent reduction in Corexit dispersal, but BP said Corexit was the only viable option. BP vice-president David Rainey shrugged, “If you’re going to tie our hands, then we don’t own this spill.” The EPA is still conducting tests on Corexit; but while BP has since agreed to use less, it never made the switch to a safer product.
Why was BP so wedded to a risky dispersant? It’s probably a coincidence, but Corexit is manufactured by Nalco Holding Company. Rodney Chase, a board member at NHC, is also on the board of British Petroleum, and BP bought NHC's entire inventory of Corexit in early May. NHC's stock rose sharply as a result. As dangerous as Corexit is now, we can only guess at its long-term effects. Some chemists believe it’ll return in the form of "toxic rain" throughout North America.
The Gulf spill is not “Obama's Katrina.” It’s not a hurricane or an insufficient levee. It's an oil company screw-up. No reasonable person expects the federal government to keep equipment on hand to repair every possible industrial disaster, nor do we expect the president to be a miracle worker or even a petroleum engineer. We have, however, given him the power to impose his (our) will on BP's North American operations, courtesy of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Thus far, no one seems to agree what the exact course of action should be, other than "fix it!" and "make the oil go away!" That, of course, is much easier said than done.
Polls have shown the American people are united with regard to the Gulf spill. A USA Today poll found almost three out of four Americans hold BP primarily responsible for the spill and its repercussions (though slightly more than half of us place secondary blame on the president). We’re angry, we know whom to blame first, and we’re ready to do take action—but what? Both the USA Today poll and an ABC News/Washington Post poll suggest we've reached a tipping point with regard to our view of fossil fuels; for the first time, a majority of respondents say they support the reduction of domestic oil production in favor of alternative energy.
On 17 June, Texas Congressman Joe Barton, the ranking Republican member of the House Energy Committee, had this to say to BP CEO Tony Hayward: “I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a twenty billion dollar shakedown." Insane as that was, Representative Barton wasn't alone in siding with British Petroleum against the American people. Rush Limbaugh called it "extortion." Randy Brogdon, currently running for governor of Oklahoma, made it unmistakably clear why he's against our representatives imposing penalties on British Petroleum: "The more government tries to get in and regulate the free market, the worse things become."
Under GOP pressure, Congressman Barton tried to walk his comments back a few hours later, saying, “[I]f anything I said this morning has been misconstrued…I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.” In other words, we misunderstood him. Bulls#!+. We didn't “misconstrue” Joe Barton. He expressed himself perfectly and meant every word. He and others on the right believe government should never intrude on the freedom of any business to do exactly what it wants, even if that jeopardizes public security. But despite recent Supreme Court decisions, we cannot allow ourselves to think of a corporation as a feeling entity with all the rights and freedoms of a citizen. It’s a business. In Jaws, the Richard Dreyfuss character, Hooper, describes a Great White thusly: "[W]hat we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine...All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." Like Hannibal Lecter, I quote Marcus Aurelius: "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" A corporation is a machine that hunts for profit, and that's all. It has no intrinsic conscience or compassion. We therefore require our government to keep the predatory nature of corporations from impinging on individual freedoms and "the general welfare." When government fails to impose the interests of The People on big business, we suffer. Animals suffer. The environment suffers. And any politician, conservative or liberal, who argues for heedless deregulation of the "free market” ignores both the stated intent of that machine and that it is not a feeling entity, automatically guaranteed freedom.
So what can we do? What power, ultimately, do private citizens possess in an environmental disaster perpetrated by a global megacorp? Sarah Palin, for one, threw her folded hands in the air and suggested we pray for "divine intervention." In other words, she's banking on a miracle. Bless her heart. I have two responses: First, we should keep careful watch on Ms. Palin's influence on the Big Man Upstairs; if she has any, we could use her back in office immediamente. Second, I believe we can do something more directly pragmatic.
We do, after all, bear some measure of culpability here. If the Obama administration failed to monitor Big Oil sufficiently, we did, too. Every president since Richard Nixon has expressed the need for greater investment in alternative energy sources. Did we listen? Did we care? Now that we care, how should we respond? It's foolish to argue for the demonization of Big Oil in toto. Over nine million Americans work for the oil and natural gas industries. Bill Maher compared those nine million people to workers in the "kiddie porn" business. That's low, unfair and misguided. Yet we can and should insist the fossil fuel business regulate itself more carefully, prepare for cataclysmic blunders, invest in alternative energy R&D, and help guide us into an era of non-petroleum energy sources. How do we insist? We use the only voice big business can hear: our collective wallet.
British Petroleum may not be the only unethical member of the oil industry, but it is the one currently spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, so let’s start there. Personally, I’ve joined over 600 thousand Facebook users in an indefinite boycott of British Petroleum and its subsidiary companies, including Amoco, Arco, Castrol, ampm convenience stores, and the gas pumps in Safeway parking lots.
It’s been argued that a boycott of BP hurts the "small business owner" who runs, for example, an Arco gas station, but BP is not a small business. Even now it has an enterprise value of over $120 billion. Besides, such corporations as Carroll Independent Fuel Co. own hundreds of BP stations and, if pressed, they could exert more pressure on BP than consumers individually. Teaching ethics to corporations requires the strategic application and withdrawal of money. Pleading alone won't do the job. BP can, however, support franchise managers and end the boycott quickly by making real changes in the way it does business. In the short term, a boycott of British Petroleum may have no appreciable impact on BP's bottom line, but the resulting negative press hurts: The company's stock price fell by half in the wake of its assault on the Gulf.
Does punishing BP for its offenses constitute an attack on the free market? Neither capitalism nor the free market guarantee a company keeps making higher profits. Individuals enjoy the freedom to boycott any unethical business. It's the only power we capitalists wield over corporate greed, which makes it something of a responsibility. If our free market model supports an irresponsible, mendacious, multinational conglomerate over the natural beauty of the Gulf or its hardworking residents, then we have to ask: Is it working?
But let’s say the cynics are right, and the boycott has no long-term effect. What would? If BP is no worse than any other oil company, chasing jaw-dropping profits at the expense of public safety, how do we turn the machine? One option is to cut BP credit cards. Another is to dump BP stock. A more permanent solution is to reduce gas usage across the board, from any company. Can you afford a hybrid or fully electric car? Then buy one.
Press your legislator to continue the so-called “shakedown” of BP. Insist we raise the company’s liability cap for the disaster, which currently stands at only $75 million. Can BP afford the tens of billions it’ll owe before the cleanup is finished? Absolutely it can—but it’ll feel it. Push the feds to indict all parties responsible for those 11 deaths and 17 injuries. As Gary Ater wrote on AmericanChronicle.com, “Had any single person driven a car into a crowded sidewalk and killed 11 people, today that person would be sitting in jail [facing] 11 manslaughter charges.” If BP should fail to make proper restitution, then the government should bar it from receiving any military or other government contract. Cancellation of existing federal leases would cost BP $16 billion a year. Over the last decade, the U.S. military purchased over four and a half billion dollars’ worth of BP fuel, even after EPA charges of “a corporate attitude of non-compliance” with reasonable safety standards.
In the first quarter of 2010, even as oft-denied oil plumes billowed, BP earned $66 million a day in pure profit. That's our money, yours and mine. Any further leeway we allow BP in particular—or Big Oil in general—makes us complicit in the single most catastrophic environmental disaster ever witnessed in American history. It’s a moral event horizon, a deepwater abyss. Holding course is no longer a viable option.