The making of an eco-catastrophe

June 25, 2010

Chris Williams, author of the newly released book Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, describes what led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

ALMOST EVERYTHING you need to know about the warped priorities of capitalism is contained in the following contradiction: Unprecedented national resources were marshaled to fight a war for oil in the Persian Gulf, yet an oil spill on our doorstep in the Gulf of Mexico is left to gush for weeks.

Two months into the disastrous spill from the Deepwater Horizon well, and BP is still clueless about what to do, as it announces one half-baked plan after another and is essentially allowed to get on with it.

But as Joseph Romm pointed out on his Climate Progress blog, "spill" hardly describes what's going on. People "spill" coffee, but hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil pouring into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of perhaps 100,000 barrels a day isn't really the same thing. A volcano of oil seems a more appropriate term.

BP's ineptitude in stopping the flow of oil contrasts sharply with its astounding technological ability to discover and drill for more. In September of last year, BP stocks rose when the company discovered a "massive" new oilfield in the Gulf.

Oil gushing from the broken BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig
Oil gushing from the broken BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig

But the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is far more than an indictment of BP, Transocean and Halliburton--though the CEOs of those companies should certainly be facing trial for criminal negligence and manslaughter.

Government regulation of the industry by the Interior Department's Mineral Management Service (MMS) doesn't even deserve the word "oversight." And with President Barack Obama announcing that he would open the whole east coast and the Alaska coast to offshore drilling, it's obvious the responsibility lies with government, too.

Ultimately, however, this is about the priorities of the capitalist system itself. The drive for profit ensured that these different economic, governmental and political actors felt compelled to take appalling decisions--treating human life as disposable while demonstrating the most callous contempt for the environment.

As Bob Herbert commented in the New York Times:

The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it's important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the Gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP's oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in.

This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.

THE BASIC story is this: BP, Transocean and Halliburton saw a legitimate (by capitalist standards) source of profit maximization. These corporations were then encouraged to cut corners on health, safety and environmental regulations by a government agency that they knew was never going to call them to account.

They were given further encouragement by a supposedly "environment-conscious" president who had just authorized virtually unlimited offshore drilling, declaring a few weeks before the disaster, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."

The more that is uncovered about the situation, the more despicable it appears.

Most of the oil that spewed into the Gulf is still below the surface. Scientists have reported giant plumes of oil underwater, running up to 10 miles long by 3 miles wide by 300 feet thick. Apart from the cancer-causing nature of many of the compounds in the oil in the first place, these concentrations are going to deplete oxygen from the water and create massive dead zones in the Gulf, toxic to all aquatic life that depends on oxygen.

Furthermore, BP has so far put almost a million gallons of toxic dispersant into the Gulf. The dispersant it has been using, Corexit, has been shown to be less effective and more toxic than alternatives. But it's cheaper--and, lo and behold, it's manufactured by a company called Nalco, which has an ex-BP member on its board. Corexit has never been used in such quantities before--which prompted Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson to say: "I'm amazed by how little science there is on this issue."

As Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler asked during congressional hearings: "Why would you use something that is much more toxic and much less effective, other than you have a corporate relationship with the manufacturer?"

A number of experts now believe that BP, in its effort just to disperse the oil on the surface so it doesn't provide a photo opportunity for the media, may be making the problem worse. Dispersants are mutagenic, carcinogenic and toxic. They break the oil up into droplets the same size as the food particles ingested by filter feeders such as oyster and shrimp, which will therefore treat the oil drops as food.

Nobody has any idea what the outcome of this experiment on ocean life in the Gulf will be, but I think it's fair to say it won't be good. As Carys Mitchelmore of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory commented: "Fish can ingest oil particles that then stick to their gills. It's like coating our lungs in oil. They aren't going to breathe too well, and we wouldn't either."

What kind of environment is BP pouring oil and dispersants into? Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. waterfowl and all of its 110 species of migratory neo-tropical songbirds use Louisiana's 3 million acres of wetlands to rest or nest. During the first two weeks of May, 25 million songbirds cross the Gulf every day.

This is also the most vital season for the Gulf's fisheries--oysters have just started to reproduce, speckled brown trout have started spawning, shrimp have just begun to grow. Nine out of 10 of the region's marine species rely on the wetlands at some point in their lifecycle. These areas comprise 40 percent of the country's total wetlands, and Louisiana produces more fish and seafood than any other state except Alaska. Fishing is now banned over one-third of the Gulf.

According to Professor Robert Thomas of New Orleans' Loyola University: "Worst-case scenarios almost never happen. In this case, almost everyone I have known with technical knowledge of oil spills--the people who have worked in the industry for 30, 40 years--say it is upon us. Others talks of a 'Gulf Coast Chernobyl.'"

WHAT ABOUT all those fail-safe devices that were supposed to kick in and stop a catastrophe like this from happening in the first place? With all its cost-cutting and nickel-and-diming on safety, BP seems to have almost gone out of its way to make sure this was an accident waiting to happen.

According to testimony before Congress, the so-called blowout preventers, which were supposed to be the last-ditch mechanism against an explosion on the Deepwater rig, had 260 ways they could fail. As Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak asked at the hearings: "How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?"

When did BP and other operators know that there were problems with the blowout preventers? Ten years ago. In 2000, the Interior Department's MMS published a report warning that there were several difficulties connected to deepwater well control, and that a blowout could be "a potential show-stopper."

Until 10 years ago, drilling for oil so deep--the Deepwater Horizon well lies more than a mile below the surface--was virtually unheard of. To give people an idea of how deep this is, naval submarines can't go below 900 yards because they are crushed by the water pressure. Where BP is drilling is more than 1,500 yards beneath the surface.

Four years after that first warning, in 2004, the MMS had a report prepared which concluded that while drilling technology had advanced, safety technology had stagnated--it again highlighted blowout control as a particular concern.

In 2008, the Society of Petroleum Engineers warned in a report that the blowout preventers might not be able to cut through the drill pipe in the event of a deepwater blowout. The report's authors included people working for Transocean and BP.

Between 1992 and 1998, there were 319 failures of blowout preventers found in U.S. offshore drilling, an average of 45 a year. Between 1992 and 2006, there were at least 39 blowouts off the U.S. coastline, 38 of them in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the spill response plan that BP filed with the MMS--and which the MMS approved--had the most idiotic mistakes. It declared that in the event of a spill, BP would consult with a local expert who had been dead for several years, and it cited the need to protect animals such as walruses and seals--which, of course, haven't been seen within hundreds of miles of the Gulf since the last Ice Age, but which do inhabit Alaska, suggesting that the company simply copied its disaster plan for another part of the world.

Despite this, MMS issued BP with a "categorical exclusion" from all environmental reviews under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act. These exclusions are only meant to occur when projects are likely to have minimal or nonexistent environmental damage. Hundreds of these waivers have been handed out by MMS for Gulf drilling operations.

Two years ago, MMS itself was investigated by the Interior Department for its "too cozy" relationship with the oil industry. Earl Devaney, the Interior Department inspector general who oversaw the investigation, found a culture of corruption in which employees rigged contracts, engaged in illegal moonlighting, took gifts from oil company employees, and engaged in sex and drug parties with oil executives. MMS was described in the Interior Department's report as an "ethical wasteland."

President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to clean up the department, but instead kept on a host of officials from the Bush era and allowed the corruption to continue. According to a shocking investigative report in Rolling Stone by Tim Dickenson:

Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments--the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource--not in cash but in crude.

And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone--an all-time high.

The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling--that's his thing," says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

SINCE THE explosion, government agencies and officials have worked in tandem with BP to hide the true extent of the spill from the world. Dickenson continued:

[T]he disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings--yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency's culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP--a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company--with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years.

He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP--and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.

Within hours of the explosion, government scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were privately estimating oil flow rates of 64,000 to 110,000 barrels per day, even as federal officials publicly said the rate was only 1,000 5,000 barrels per day.

This should therefore be seen as a national political scandal--our elected government sought to deceive the public about the extent of the crisis. This deception reached absurd lengths. According to the New York Times: "Anderson Cooper of CNN complained about seemingly ridiculous efforts to control the story, including the fact that rescued oil-covered birds were being guarded and hidden from view by members of the National Guard."

Imagine if the collusion between the government and BP to manage the news and minimize the scale of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf had been exposed when George W. Bush was still president? The level of anger and outrage from liberal groups and large environmental organizations would have been on a vastly different scale.

But so far, despite a significant drop in his popularity overall, Obama and the government are not being held accountable in the way they certainly deserve. That was a point made by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who oversees the Interior Department as chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands:

People are being really circumspect, not pointing the finger at Salazar and Obama...But the troublesome point is, the administration knew that it had this rot in the middle of the process on offshore drilling--yet it empowered an already discredited, disgraced agency to essentially be in charge.

Still, anger from ordinary people toward Obama's lack of action and the long delay in holding BP's feet to the fire is on the rise. One sign appearing in Louisiana captures the mood perfectly: "President Obama, BP stole my money. Where's my change?"

The parallels with the recent mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in April that killed 29 miners are striking. At that time, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, told ABC News: "We have lots of regulators in the industry, probably more regulators in the coal industry than any other industry in the country, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the state agencies, all the safety people we have on hand felt this was a safe coal mine...At the Massey level, we're doing everything we can to make all of our mines as safe as we can."

In reality, Blankenship is an infamous global warming denier and his company is also a serial breaker of health and safety regulations. The lax oversight and disregard for the welfare of its workers at the Upper Big Branch mine is a mirror image of BP's efforts to maximize profits over all other concerns.

Since 1995, Massey has been cited for 3,007 safety violations and more than $2.2 million in fines, most of which it has contested. When Massey isn't blowing the top off the last remaining mountains in central Appalachia, the company's burying miners underneath them.

But that coal disaster, the worst in the U.S. in years, has barely affected the practice of any mine operator. A crackdown in May by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration produced almost 1,500 citations at 56 underground mines in nine states.

Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main, head of the mine-safety agency, said: "After last month's tragic reminder of the consequences of failing to make safety a priority, it is appalling that these operations continued to flout fundamental safety and health standards." We have to ask, why aren't these mine operators on their way to jail?

What unites these companies? According to the laws of capitalism, BP was acting perfectly rationally. The company needs to maximize profits, and this compulsion, dictated by the iron laws of capitalist competition, will always conflict with environmental concerns or the health and safety of workers.

Trying to cut corners, lying and cheating are not aberrations of capitalist development unique to a few large and irresponsible oil and coal companies. They are ingrained in the system. The whole purpose of any capitalist entity is to make money and make more money faster than any other competing company.

The fact that the pattern is almost identical in the case of BP and Massey--massive corporations relentlessly hunting for extra profits, lax government oversight and little sign of a political challenge--requires us to examine the systemic nature of the problem, which is at the root of the global ecological crisis itself.

WHAT SHOULD a rising movement for justice for the Gulf fight for? Here are some suggestions:

An immediate halt to all deep-water drilling. It's clear that drilling so deep underwater is impossible to make safe; we should therefore not do it.

We need to send a signal to the world and corporations that the U.S. is finally going to wean itself from oil. For all the talk about the need to drill pretty much everywhere, the reality is that half of all oil recovered from the Gulf of Mexico is exported, giving the lie to the idea that these wells are making the U.S. energy-independent.

While Obama has declared a moratorium on new exploratory drilling, this only affects 33 deepwater sites--less than 1 percent of the 5,106 drilling operations in the Gulf, and around 5 percent in deepwater areas. We need to shut down the other 591 immediately, create jobs to re-employ all laid-off workers, and phase out offshore drilling altogether.

However, Ken Salazar has made it clear that this is not part of the Obama plan. In congressional testimony in June, he made sure to emphasize that deepwater drilling will continue, saying, "It was the president's directive that we press the pause button...It's important for all of you on this committee to know that word--it's the pause button. It's not the stop button."

Immediate recruiting of tens of thousands of workers, especially those laid off due to closure of fishing areas or the ban on oil drilling, to aid with clean-up efforts in the Gulf. These workers should be paid by BP at the same rate they were formerly paid.

Immediate removal of BP from control and oversight of media operations and any spill response outside of BP's efforts to contain the spill itself. This is, in fact, required by federal law. The federal National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan states that corporations cannot be in charge of spill response on this magnitude and mandates the government to take control to "direct all federal, state or private actions" and clean up a spill "where a discharge or threat of discharge poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States."

An independent investigation of the government's response to the spill. There should be possible criminal charges or other sanctions against those found who obstructed a realistic assessment of the catastrophe or allowed BP and other oil companies to continue with their reckless practices.

A comprehensive energy bill. This legislation must reject the compromises and false solutions proposed by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman and encapsulated in the proposed American Power Act, and instead favor a massive jobs program based on energy conservation, public transit infrastructure and the construction of a new electricity grid that can utilize renewable energies, such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Such legislation could be financed by raising the top tax rate on individuals and taxes on corporations, plus a new tax on financial transactions carried out by Wall Street. Another necessary measure would be to reverse the billions of dollars in subsidies going to fossil fuel-based and nuclear energy production and biofuels, and direct them toward the expansion of renewable sources of energy, infrastructure and the necessary jobs to build the new infrastructure.

Obama went for expanding offshore drilling as a concession to try to win the support of Democrats and "moderate" Republicans for climate legislation. That backfired stupendously--Republicans are completely uninterested in a rational energy plan for the U.S. The more concessions that Obama makes to the right, the more the right will howl for more.

It's time to stop making concessions to the right. The only way that will happen is if a grassroots movement puts more pressure from Obama from the left.

Further Reading

From the archives