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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Image from my friend, Mark Eifert of Portland Or.

Perhaps it is an unpoetic justice that the residue of ancient life, geologically folded and folded again, once uplifted and verdant, and then thrust downward, submerged, cooked by extreme pressures and heat, and some 18,000 feet beneath sea level off the coasts of Louisiana and Alabama, now, courtesy of the greed-induced hubris of a transnational corporation, British Petroleum, works to destroy the life-forms of the Gulf of Mexico.  Thirty million years old, this oil deposit is, to the measurements presently available, the second largest in the world.  A true bonanza of “black gold.”  In its eagerness to tap this, BP drilled deeper than ever before, to a depth of 5,000+ feet, a mile, to the Gulf’s floor, and then another 13,000 feet to the deposit.  It did so, assuring a corrupted (by BP and other oil industry giants) Minerals Management Service of the US Federal Government, that the chances of any spills were extremely tiny, it’s equipment was cutting edge/state-of-the-art, and that in any event they had the means and expertise to take care of any unforeseen problems.  They obtained, in exchange for some tickets to sports events, some sexual favors, some drugs, and probably some money, a waiver on any environmental impact report.  There wouldn’t be any, so they claimed.  And the corrupted agency consented.

British Petroleum oil coated aviary casualty

As it happened, there was “a problem.”   On the immediate level  the problem was that BP, well known in the industry for problems owing to corner cutting in the pursuit of profits, acted in its normal fashion, economizing, in haste to bring the Deepwater Horizon well on-line, and into profit-making.  A few days before the Deepwater Horizon blow-out a gaggle of BP executives had helicoptered out to the drilling rig to party, celebrating the imminent on-line status of the well and the fat profits to come.  On board though there had been disagreements between the rig owners, Transocean (a company allegedly Swiss, with its central offices there as a tax dodge, but actually Texan, with most of its employees American, and its offices and most of its employees in Houston), about procedures to use, and BP, which was leasing the rig, had the final word.  They’d skip on a process of using “heavy mud” and instead go to thinner sea water, this despite clear signals in the previous days that various things were seriously amiss.  Also they skipped a test of the concrete used to cap the well, a job out-sourced to Halliburton, known in Iraq for many dubious practices.   Leasing a drilling rig costs a half million dollars a day, and as in the old mantra of capitalism, time is money.  Cut it short said the BP supervisor.   Meantime, legally, with the consent of the Federal Government’s porn-watching regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), they’d skipped on a parallel well, standard in other parts of the world as a back-up in case something goes wrong, and they’d skipped on a fail-safe last chance choke valve costing a half million dollars.  After all, for a corporation, profit is king.  Expenses like those they faced here seemed too much, and besides, they were all too sure their technology worked, even if they’d never done so at such depths and the pressures involved.  And they were partying.   The initial price was 11 workers killed on the platform at the time of the blow-out.

As is known in the oil industry, BP has a long history of cutting corners and making messes.  Only recently, in 2005, one of their refineries in Texas City, Texas, with numerous citations for safety violations, blew up at the loss of 15 lives.   Their pipe-line in Alaska, untended for 15 years, rusted and corroded, and with, again, numerous citations against it, ruptured and spilled 6,400 barrels on the delicate tundra of Prudhoe  Bay.

[For updates on the real situation, including a worst-case (beginning to look to be the probable case) scenario, see TheOilDrum. There some oil business people believe the well itself is now compromised and will in due time rupture, and that the entire field which was being drilled will be released, and perhaps the sea-floor will collapse – oily tsunami anyone?]

BP pipeline in Alaska

British Petroleum is the 4th largest corporation in the world (some stats say the 7th), and the 3rd biggest energy corporation – which, logically, makes 2 of the other largest ones also energy corporations.  It made 17 billion dollars in profits last year (Exxon made 19).   Little wonder they are able to buy and corrupt such countries as Nigeria and Ecuador, where reckless practices have poisoned the environment.  Or that they can buy the American Congress, to re-write the law and to let up on regulation and oversight.

Niger DeltaEcuador

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has unfolded, like a dense sheet of oil, slowly, grudgingly being revealed by British Petroleum, apparently with the collusion of United States agencies lending a hand in hiding the larger and uglier truths: assisting in blocking reporters from the media have been the Coast Guard, the Homeland Security Agency, local police agencies – all supposedly in service to the public, but instead acting to protect a giant private corporation.  BP was a major political contributor to both parties in recent past elections, and maintains a powerful lobbying force in Washington.   But as the oils slip not into hidden backwoods bayous along the Louisiana coast, difficult to access except to the locals, but onto the pristine vacation beaches of Alabama and now the Florida panhandle, and as the loop current brings it to Key West, and later up the Atlantic Coast of Florida, it has become  harder and harder for BP and its governmental partners to mask the enormity of their errors.  And a sullen cloud seems to have descended across America, a turgid shock wave of recognition that this catastrophe, the edges of which remain invisible, are intimately connected to economic collapse of 2008.  And that perhaps our government, our “system,” is longer “ours” but has been seized by those economic and corporate interests which produced these traumas.  On both the Right and Left there seems an unsettled sense that control of our fates has passed into the hands of a vague force – the “elites,” the “corporations,” the financial sector, some diabolic confluence of them all tied in with the military-industrial-media complex.  In the political center there seems confusion – all the assumptions of an orderly middle-class world suddenly shattered: the 401K that disappeared; the mortgage that can’t be paid; the job ended; the house lost.   All the comfortable assurances which our social-political-economic world seemed to offer have all suddenly been placed in doubt: what will the health insurance pay?  Will it even be there?  Social Security?  For many it seems as if the rug has been pulled from beneath them and all the parameters by which they measured have been summarily changed,  and for the worse.

As the swell of anger rises, and the apathy of many is shaken by their new economic realities – the loss of job, home, or perhaps only the seeming threat of such as friends and family lose theirs – America will doubtless fragment further as the internal stresses work their way through the body politic.  We can already see it in the curious silence of the Tea-party folks who only months ago were chanting “Drill Baby Drill” and who now seem to have nothing to say.  We can see it in the stalwart anti-government elements of the Right suddenly complaining that government isn’t big enough to instantly plug the BP well-hole, or manage the immense damages being inflicted on the Gulf.  We can see it in the hesitations of the Obama administration, seemingly lost in the on-rush of calamities, sprinting from one to the other while trying to appear calm and under control.  And we can see it in our historical myopia in which we fail to see that for a long time we have constructed this whole system as a trap for ourselves, and as often happens in history, we are sleep-walking our way to the end.

Since World War 2 America got itself hooked on an imaginary vision of itself, something coming out of earlier times when the government opened up new lands (taken by force from the natives) and set up “Land Rushes” with a deal of 40 acres out in Iowa or Nebraska or Oklahoma, if you stayed on the land and built it up.  Just gallop out, stake it out, and it’s yours.  A lot of people got very rich doing so, and others very poor.  Similar government deals made railroad barons, with swaths of land adjacent their tracks similarly rich.  It’s been going on the same way since – with agri-biz, with water, with the military-industrial complex, with oil.

Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in Titusville, and coupled with the already on going matter of industrialization that had kicked in seriously in the early to mid 1800’s, it sent America and the world off on an energy jag that hasn’t let up since, though peak oil is going to force a withdrawal pattern, like it or not.  In America this combo led to “the American Dream” in which one wasn’t a “man” if you didn’t have “wheels” and the promise was you got a house with a patch of lawn around it.  Naturally to have this, you had a job.  So it went, and most Americans bought this dream, got a job, a mortgage, a set of wheels (or more), a house with a two car garage, and along with it all the other accouterments of a nice “middle class” life.  Health and life insurance, Social Security, and all the rest.  Set for life out in the ‘burbs.   This was our collective dream, or so our politicians and cultural pundits told us.

This was our myth, “the American Way of Life,”  and all the other national clichés: Number One, and so on.  It was energized by that good old American individualism, “self-sufficiency,” free enterprise, that “can-do” entrepreneurial instinct (amazing how we wrapped ourselves around that French word), and all the other mental snake-oil of the stories we told ourselves.  Of course it was all like an old frontier “tall story,” a package of whopping lies we liked to think represented us.

US:  less than 5% of the global population consuming about 25% of global resources.

Because of our ingenuity, go-get-’em individualism and all?    Well, maybe a bit.  But a lot more because we grabbed by hook or crook a large part of a whole continent, and more or less wiped out the original inhabitants and then “gave” it to ourselves.   And we used at the outset slave labor to build it up for several hundred years, and when we finally made the slaves “legally” equal we relegated them to a sub-citizen standard, which is still, despite a half-black President and numerous very wealthy sports and entertainment stars of dark skin, still the case.   And early on we tilted the playing deck so that some got very rich, much owing to governmental largesse, as with the railroad barons of the late 1800’s (who, incidentally, used “cheap” Chinese labor for building their lines) who were given large swathes of land, and then oil and mining barons who were given the value of what lay under the land for a pittance of its value, a practice which continues to this oil-soaked day.

Louisiana bayou

But, not content to parcel out the wealth of our part of a continent, we rigged the rules, and with the Monroe doctrine laid claim to some kind of rights south of the border.  Rights usually enforced with military intervention, usually asserted in the name of “national interests,” meaning some American corporation needed some muscle to enforce its exploitative actions on the local natives.  This is on-going, though somewhere around Barbary Pirates times was extended to include the whole globe.  Now, for our “national interests” we are encamped in Iraq, Afghanistan and more places than most Americans can remember or list – countries most never even heard of and certainly the names of which they could not pronounce.

In the name of “the American Way of Life,” which our current President, as all Presidents must, asserts we will not give up or change, we thus now have a military which consumes half the Federal budget, and consumes about half the oil which America uses.  Facing a massive national deficit, however, when it comes time to pruning expenses, our glorious military is virtually never mentioned as a candidate for some real cost cutting.  America spends more annually on its military than all the rest of the world does on its, with much of that other half being of our “allies” and only a small fraction – about a fifth of our expenditures – by our erstwhile potential enemies (China and Russia).

In turn our foreign policy is largely based on securing a supply of oil to feed to our military, a rather circular arrangement in which the wars we indulge in, for whatever fanciful reasons our leaders claim, are, as Alan Greenspan blurted out, really about oil.  Iraq.  Or perhaps other resources.

Besotted by our own myths, we have taken a spiral toward auto-destruction (pun not quite intended), such that our behavior now apes that of another of our old stories, that of the oral folk tales transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris as the Uncle Remus stories.  The one that tells our story is that of Bre’r rabbit and the tar baby.  Whether we, as the rabbit, will be such good cons as to get a chance to be tossed into the briar patch, is looking doubtful.  So far, we’re best at conning ourselves.

For an in-depth story on Deepwater Horizon disaster and the current administration’s part in it, see this article from Rolling Stone. For more on the Gulf situation see Cinemaelectronica.  Or see the Shell PR item for a sense of the scale at which these operations are done.