Monday, May 10, 2010

Big Oil’s Last Stand, Right’s Ideological Pushback Amid Worst Environmental Disaster in U.S. History

As the BP environmental catastrophe unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, observers struggle with words to describe its enormity. One called it “America’s Chernobyl;” another described it as “a teaching moment;” and President Obama said “your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis.” Environmentalists are stunned. Curiously muted, their minds a jumble of tasered synapses trying to wrap around this calamity and make sense of it, contextualize it.

Republicans and Democrats in-name-only were quick to come to the rescue –- of BP and Big Oil, their biggest donors. DINO Hall of Fame inductee Mary Landrieu, senator from Louisiana, the state whose ecology and coastal economy lies in the path of devastation, along with Republican governors Rick Perry of Texas and Haley Barbour of Mississippi spoke up for their corporate constituents.

A Confederacy of Oil Barons Serving Transnational Corporations

Senator Landrieu said, “you’ve got to put this accident in perspective. The last thing we have to do is shut the oil and gas industry down.” Her first instinct as a politician was to shelter BP and Big Oil instead of her constituents, her people, the state’s coastal economy and ecology, which could be devastated for decades. Louisiana’s other senator, Republican David Vitter (better known for his diaper fetish and extreme right wing views) lamented that “BP is spread too thin.”

The fishing industry alone in the Gulf region accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. commercial fishing. It provides about 1 in 17 jobs in the region. Fishers are particularly vulnerable and this crisis may drive many into bankruptcy. They were barely recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the oil spill disaster struck.

Secessionist Texas governor Rick Perry called the oil spill “an act of God.” Barbour went further: “I think the most important thing is for people not to panic and not to assume the worst. Some in the news media keep forcing this on the public as the equivalent of Exxon Valdez. Well, the difference is just enormous.”

Really? The Exxon Valdez spill released 10.9 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, of which only 10% of the oil was recovered and the ecology and wildlife remains devastated. The three leaks in the BP oil disaster have been releasing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day (Coast Guard estimate). Skytruth, a nonprofit organization tracking the oil spill estimates it’s more like 26,000 barrels of oil a day, based on satellite imagery and scientific studies.

On May 1, eleven days into the Gulf crisis, according to Dr. Ian McDonald of FSU, estimates of the oil slick indicated that 12.12 million gallons of oil, at a minimum have been released into the Gulf of Mexico, surpassing the Exxon Valdez spill. Five days later, at a rate of 1.1 million gallons a day, the spill will have reached 17.6 million gallons released into the Gulf, tragically making the Exxon Valdez oil spill a distant second.

This catastrophic disaster is entirely man-made, not Perry’s and the industry’s “act of God.” It was not caused by nature, high seas, a hurricane, or any other phenomenon that could properly be ascribed for purposes of assigning liability to “an act of God.” Perry wasn’t being pious; he was protecting his corporate donors/owners and Texas’s oil and gas polluters.

BP/Halliburton Deadly Pollution Record (Only the Most Recent)

  • In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery (third-largest in the country) and fires ripped through the giant site, killing 15 workers, injuring 180 others, as 43,000 people fled for their lives into indoor shelters. The investigation determined the blast was caused by failure “at all levels of the BP Corporation” including, significantly, repeated cost-cutting safety and maintenance violations. A “criminal investigation” by the Bush-Cheney Justice Department resulted in a $50 million fine against the company for violating the Clean Air Act. One EPA administrator said the fine was but a slap on the wrist, a “laghingstock” for a company with profits in excess of $17 billion in 2007. The Justice Department slammed the door on EPA continuing a criminal probe of BP.
  • In 2006 BP was at it again, drawing criminal investigations from the EPA and Justice Department for two massive corroded oil pipe leaks into the Alaskan tundra of 200,000 gallons of oil. BP’s contemptuous “compliance” with the Alaska U.S. Attorney’s office request for a “surgical” release of documents was to scan 62 million pages. EPA Special Agent in Charge Scott West remembers thinking, “Holy shit, I cant breathe.” If he and his woefully understaffed three or four people printed out all of the pages “it would have filled a warehouse.”
  • In 2009 an oil rig exploded into a fireball off the coast of Australia, dumping thousands of barrels of oil into the pristine fishing waters of the region over a ten-week period. The cause, as suspected in the Gulf oil disaster, was a faulty cementing job by Halliburton. The World Wildlife Fund called the spill one of Australia’s worst environmental disasters, ruining 80% of the catch for some fishermen.
The Halliburton-Cheney Connection: Cheney’s Katrina

Where is Dick Cheney? One of the more curious aspects of this environmental catastrophe is the absence of Big Oilman Dick Cheney from the public eye. In the first days of the crisis, Cheney’s surrogates fanned out in a full-court media press to spread disinformation and propaganda, even trying to deflect blame onto President Obama by calling it “Obama’s Katrina.” This charge is so patently absurd and irresponsible that it fell of its own weight when the media, for once, did a good job debunking it. Cheney’s fingerprints are all over the misinformation campaign, but he remains out of sight, hunkered down in an undisclosed location.

Cheney has cause to lay low. His filthy fingers may be all over the right’s propaganda campaign, but the truth of Cheney’s responsibility and potential criminal liability is far more sinister.

The explosions in both the BP Australian and Gulf oil rig (operated by BP subcontractor Deepwater Horizon) increasingly point to Halliburton as the main culprit for faulty cementing. The process is meant to prevent oil and natural gas from escaping by filling gaps between the outside of the well pipe and the inside of the hole bored into the ocean floor. The wife of one of the rig workers killed in the explosion has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming Halliburton is culpable: The company “prior to the explosion, was engaged in cementing operations of the well and well cap and, upon information and belief, improperly and negligently performed these duties, which was a cause of the explosion.”

Halliburton confirmed it had finished cementing 20 hours prior to the Gulf rig explosion, just as it had finished cementing the Australian rig when it blew on August 21, 2009. As the Australian government inquiry into what is called the Monera spill continues, a Halliburton cementer with 20 years on the job testified: “Q: have you been taught in, training or otherwise become aware that problems with cementing are the number one cause of blowouts?” A: “No, I wasn‘t aware of that.” From 1996 to 2006, 18 of the 39 offshore blow-outs have been caused by bad cementing, according to the U.S. industry regulator, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency of the Interior Department.

Why is this significant?

Halliburton’s alleged criminal negligence was aided and abetted by former CEO Dick Cheney’s even more valuable service to the energy industry as a powerful poison pill government insider gutting the very regulatory agencies (Interior-MMS) responsible for public interest oversight and regulation of these transnational corporations. Cheney bagged $44 million during his five-year tenure with Halliburton before becoming Vice President. As Vice President Cheney remained on the company’s payroll. After all, he is a valued corporate asset, having ensured that Halliburton’s entrails reach into every nook and cranny of Iraq-Afghanistan war profiteering.

Deregulation by the Numbers: An Avoidable Catastrophe

Burn this into memory, deregulators and global warming deniers and laissez-faire capitalist ideologues and limited government libertarians: Based on the facts, proper industry safety standards, oversight, and regulatory protocols would have prevented the catastrophe inexorably poisoning the Gulf. The craven history of Cheney’s secret meetings with energy industry tycoons -- to divvy up the deregulatory spoils, line his pockets with present and future IOUs, and gut the Interior Department and its industry enforcement arm, MMS, staffing them with cronies and (literally) industry whores -- leads directly to the Gulf oil disaster.
  • In 2000 MMS requested industry advice on problems related to the cementing used around deep sea well caps to stop blowouts. The oil industry never produced recommendations, and no regulation was put in place. When the Bush-Cheney oil regime took office, they put the brakes on comprehensive safety regulation by MMS, which considered a safety redundant device, called an acoustic trigger “essential” and proposed to mandate them on all Gulf oil rigs.
Acoustic triggers, are mandated for major offshore rig operators off the coast of Brazil and in Norway’s North Sea operations. BP has voluntarily installed this safeguard in its North Sea rigs. All the world’s major companies use the device. It is a remotely triggered shutoff switch that activates when the manual switch fails. This device, which costs $500,000 was not installed in the BP Deepwater Horizon rig. It could have prevented the BP Gulf oil disaster.
  • The number of drill site inspections carried out by the MMS fell by 41 percent between 2005 and 2009, even as the number of drill rigs operating in U.S. waters increased. The number of penalties issued by MMS for regulatory violations fell from 66 in 2000 to 20 last year.
  • Illustrating BP’s awesome political clout, In June of 2009, the MMS, now under Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (whose appointment was criticized by environmentalists for being too cozy with the oil industry) exempted BP from producing a legally mandated environmental impact study for the site where Deepwater Horizon would drill. Obama was earlier warned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that MMS studies approving offshore drilling were not reliable.
“Chocolate Milk”

To hear the industry shills describe it, the oil spill poisoning the Gulf waters as it makes landfall is as benign, warm and cuddly as “chocolate milk.” Rep. Gene Taylor, one more Mississippi Democrat in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, said: “A lot of people are scared and I don’t think they should be” because “What I want people to know is, this isn’t Katrina, this is not Armageddon. The farther you get from the spill, that chocolate milk looking spill starts breaking up into smaller pieces.”

That’s like saying you’ll take your almond coffee mocha with almond-smelling cyanide and that “chocolate milk” chemical dispersant. In yet another outrage perpetrated on the public, epecially affected populations in the direct path of the oil slick, BP has refused to disclose the composition of the dispersants used in the spill, because it is a competitive trade secret protected by law. But if it’s Corexit or a product of similar composition, it contains 2-butoxyethanol, a compound that causes headaches, vomiting, and “reproductive problems in high doses.”

Aside from its devastating, long-term impact on marine life and the delicate ecosystem in the Gulf, a review by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics determined that a version of Corexit, widely used in the Exxon Valdez spill “was later linked with health impacts in people including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders.” According to the Pro Publica article reporting on the oil spill’s chemical health hazard, “the evaporation process can also concentrate the toxic compounds left behind, particularly oil-derived compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.”

In contrast to Rep. Taylor’s upbeat “the good news is it’s not in the marshes where the juvenile shrimp are, and it’s tending to break up naturally,” a Coast Guard crew described the smell emanating from the oil spill at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta as “nasty.” Reports are starting to come in from Florida, in Kissimmee and Orlando that a “strange scent in the air” was detected which wasn’t there four hours before. In St Petersburg, a “heavy oil smell hung in the air. Wind was coming from the NNW. At first it smelled like a tiki-torch, but by 11 pm it was overwhelming. It gave me a horrible headache, and the people I spoke with had headaches as well. It was thick enough to taste in the air.” Similar first-person accounts are surfacing all over the region. Follow them here.

The Right’s Response to Catastrophe: Despicable and Irresponsible

No sooner had disaster struck in the Gulf of Mexico that the right wing propaganda machine went into full coverup and mobilization mode in a rush to absolve BP and the oil industry of any responsibility while, absurdly, shifting the blame to President Obama. Here is a synopsis of the right wing’s fierce industry-protectant propaganda campaign, unmatched by any legitimate media outlets:

Blame Obama. So what else is new. After the absurd charge (even for the right) that this was “Obama’s Katrina” fizzled, Dick Cheney surrogates Dana Perrino (Bush-Cheney’ s certifiably ignorant former press secretary) and Michael ‘Helluva job’ Brownie (the disgraced FEMA administrator when Katrina struck) were dispatched to Fox “News” to spread despicable accusations and rumors. Claiming, falsely, that President Obama’s response to the oil spill was delayed, Brown told Neil Cavuto of Fox: “It’s pure politics. This president has never supported big oil. He has never supported offshore drilling. And now he has an excuse to shut it back down.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied:

Embrace the Conspiracy. Dana Perrino doubled down on Rush Limbaugh’s wild conspiracy that “environmentalist wackos” blew up the oil rig because they were upset with the “timing” of the President’s drilling announcement “so, what better way to head off more oil drilling and nuclear plants then by blowing up a rig? I’m just, I’m just noting the timing here.” Perrino: “I’m not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory, but was this deliberate? You have to wonder if there was sabotage involved.”

Minimize the Damage, Shift Blame to Environmentalists. Saying tasteless and insensitive things is nothing new for Rush Limbaugh. Neither, for that matter, is spouting flat-out irresponsible lies. To sound authoritave, Limbaugh keeps repeating “British Petroleum,” unaware that the company changed its name to “BP” to represent a more PR-friendly “beyond petroleum” public image. A small point, perhaps, but illustrative of what a damn fool the imbecile blowhard is.

He said: “oil has a tough time surviving. This many gallons of oil seeps from the floor of the Gulf every day. It never surfaces because it gets eaten alive. But it seeps from the ocean floor at this amount, not as concentrated as what is coming from this well.” Absolute nonsense, followed by, “[Some] people are saying, don’t panic, the sea will take care of the oil spill, [meanwhile rather than work with] British Petroleum, they are enemy.” Well, one can’t work with “British Petroleum” because that company does not exist -- it is now listed as “BP.”

Maintain Strict Media Silence About Who the Real Culprits Are: The Bush-Cheney Regime. How many stories has right wing media done about the gutting of Interior-MMS under Bush-Cheney and the rampant deregulation that may have a direct causal connection to this massive environmental catastrophe by not requiring installation of a $500,000 redundant acoustic switch? Answer -- almost none. One notable exception is the Wall Street Journal. Still, the right wing media has been silent on the Cheney connection, after a brief flurry of trying to blame President Obama.

Double Down on the Outworn and Discredited Slogan, “drill, baby, drill.” According to Media Matters, “Fox News has long history of aggressively advocating for offshore drilling.” And it shows. Sister Sarah posted on her juvie Facebook page, “How could I still believe in drilling America's domestic supply of energy after having seen the devastation of the Exxon-Valdez spill? I continue to believe in it because increased domestic oil production will make us a more secure, prosperous, and peaceful nation.”

She fails to mention the 2006 BP oil spill on the Alaskan tundra, the impact of global warming on her state, and the fact that oil is a fungible commodity which continues to fuel our enemies and adversaries. We cannot drill our way out of dependence on foreign oil. Essentially, offshore drilling is a profit-gouging government subsidy to line the pockets of Big Oil transnational coporations like BP, with a horrific, irreversible toll on our environment.

Finally, Coordinate the Message. From Limbaugh to Fox, these operate as propagandists for Big Oil, with coordinated talking points meant to create a narrative friendly to BP, that minimizes the catastrophic damage this company and its powerful cronies are causing to the environment, limits liability, and promotes offshore drilling. Guess who’s behind this? The Chamber of Commerce (last seen running racist ads against Blanche Lincoln opponent, Bill Halter) and -- none other than Teabagger undrewriters, Dick Armey’s astroturf front group, Freedomworks.

A (Very) Brief History of Corporatism v. Environmentalism

In 1962 Rachel Carson published her seminal work, Silent Spring, which sounded the alarm against the lethal threat to animal life and humans posed by the widespread use of pesticides in our environment. Carson was viciously attacked by a concerted chemical industry campaign that spent more than a quarter-million (real money in 1962) to discredit her. In many ways the attacks continue to this day; attacks by libertarian laissez-faire ideologues whose small government mantra spurred the deregulation craze.
“Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a ‘hysterical woman’ unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto Company, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed, the whole chemical industry — duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.”
-Time Magazine, 1999
When Ralph Nader published his 1965 bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, an indictment of the U.S. auto industry’s abysmal safety standards, GM’s response was to aggressively try to smear Nader. GM hired private detectives to tap his phones and look into his past, and prostitutes to entrap him. Nader sued, winning a decision that expanded tort law to cover “overzealous surveillance.”

Sound familiar? Corporate malfeasance and criminality is exposed, industry responds with campaign to attack the messenger, limit its liability, feed pocketed politicians and right wing media its propaganda talking points, spend whatever it takes to distort the truth and fool public opinion. BP said it will pay compensation for “legitimate and objectively verifiable claims for property damage, personal injury and commercial losses.”

BP has placed a price tag on its responsibility for devastating the Gulf states coastal economy: $5,000. BP representatives descended like locusts on the region circulating a “settlement agreement” among Gulf Coast residents offering payments up to $5,000 in exchange for signing a waiver in which the victim agrees not to sue the company. When the media got wind of this, BP CEO Tony Hayward backpedaled, claiming it was a “misstep.” Indeed. A misstep with at least six missing zeros.]

Congress to the Rescue -- NOT!

This week BP, Halliburton and Deepwater Horizon executives prepare to be grilled by three Congressional committees. In a preview of what we can expect, PolitiFact rated statements by Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, on ABC News’ This Week as “barely true.” McKay claimed his letter to MMS recommended improvements around safety regulations, but most of the letter, said PolitiFact, “suggests ways of making regulation less of a burden for BP. Certainly this is an ‘improvement’ from BP’s perspective, but we don’t see how it makes safety ‘the number one priority.’”

Predictably, perhaps, the Democratic members will posture for the cameras and ask tough questions, while the industry executives dissemble and express contrition. Even Republicans may get into the act of sounding tough. The question is, what will happen when the gavels bang the hearings closed? Federal Law limits BP’s liability to a measly $75 million drop in the bucket. Florida’s Bill Nelson is one of three Democratic senators introducing legislation to raise that liability dramatically to $10 billion, retroactively applicable to BP.

What the public needs to assess from Congress is, (1) will the Nelson legislation pass; and (2) will Congress enact tougher regulations and controls on deep-sea offshore oil drilling, at least to come in line with standards imposed for North Sea and Brazil offshore rigs. BP is the ultimate insider’s insider corporation, greasing every wheel from the President to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on down to the most junior representative. Unless there is a groundswell of public support and outrage, a public campaign demanding stringent environmental controls and fines on polluters, the chances of BP skating as devastation continues in the Gulf are about 70-30 percent.

Paul Krugman said, “antigovernment ideology remains all too prevalent, despite the havoc it has wrought. In fact, it has been making a comeback with the rise of the Tea Party movement. If there’s any silver lining to the disaster in the Gulf, it is that it may serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that we need politicians who believe in good government, because there are some jobs only the government can do.”

Is This Still Our Land?

Georgianne Nienaber said: “Words alone cannot express how dire the situation is for all life in the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 1945 or thereabouts, Woodie Guthrie wrote a song that Bruce Springsteen, a great troubador of our time, described as “the greatest song ever written about America.” He said:
“It gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was supposed to be about. If you talk to some of the unemployed workers … or a lot of people out there whose jobs are disappearing … I don’t know if they’d feel like this song is true anymore. I’m not sure that it is, but I know that it ought to be. [W]ith countries, just like with people, it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”
words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I was walkin', I saw a sign there
And that sign said no tress passin'
But on the other side it didn't say nothin!

Now that side was made for you and me!
Is it still true? It’s slipping away as surely as that gusher of black death continues to spew its poison into the Gulf. Death in the color of chocolate milk. But one thing I know. It’s still worth fighting for. And fight for it we must, with every last fiber of our being.

Whose America is it, anyway?


Anonymous said...

Excellent, comprehensive coverage of all aspects. Thanks for the breakdown and factual support. And this is so true: "Unless there is a groundswell of public support and outrage, a public campaign demanding stringent environmental controls and fines on polluters, the chances of BP skating as devastation continues in the Gulf are about 70-30 percent."

So ... as always, how do we motivate people to back the legislation needed to prevent the damage?

Carlos said...

Thanks. We start by getting in touch with our senators and expressing our wish to have the Senate take swift action, first, by passing the bill introduced by Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Menendez of NJ to raise BP's liability cap to $10 billion. (It's still inadequate to cover the overall cost, but outrageously, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, 2nd highest recipient of oil and gas money, top industry shill, objected to the law passing by unanimous consent. She needs to be shamed and pressured into backing down from her immoral block of this legislation.) Second, urge your senators to swiftly pass the legislative recommendations President Obama will be submitting and has asked for quick approval from Congress.

That's just for starters. The public is becoming increasingly outraged. Sen. Nelson says he will continue to bring up the bill until Murkowski backs down. She is making a spectacle of herself and represents everything that is wrong with politics in this country.