Wednesday, January 19, 2011

BP Gets A Slap On The Wrist

By Gene Clancy
Published Jan 17, 2011 10:12 PM

On Jan. 6, a presidential commission released excerpts of a report on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was good news for BP and one of its subcontractors, Transocean: The prices for their shares rose as investors bet that the report meant that the firms would avoid the massive costs of a gross negligence charge. (Reuters, Jan. 6)

It was bad news for working and poor people who are employed and/or live in the Gulf region, and for all who are concerned about the environment.

On April 20, an explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 men and injured 17 others. Attempts to staunch the gusher failed, until a cap was finally deployed over the undersea well on July 15. By that time, 4.4 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil spill, which now ranks as the largest offshore oil disaster in U.S. history, destroyed huge areas of sensitive wildlife and habitat, and paralyzed important segments of the Gulf Coast’s economy, including the seafood industry and tourism. The area still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The report’s 48-page excerpt says that “poor decisions” by BP; Transocean Ltd., the rig’s owner; and Halliburton Corp., a contractor on the rig, led to technical problems that contributed to the disaster. It stated that individual decisions made by each of those parties, while saving significant time and money, upped the risk that a catastrophic blowout would occur. (AP, Jan 6)

The report also warned that such a disaster could happen again, due to systemic problems within the offshore oil and gas industry, and among government regulators who oversee it.

Shortly after the catastrophe, President Barack Obama promised to hold BP completely accountable for all damages arising from the spill. He declared a six-month moratorium on deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico until the reasons for the spill were investigated and determined. He appointed the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which was to come up with its findings by Jan. 11. Unsurprisingly, the moratorium, although considered very short by environmental experts, was quickly aborted as the administration backed down in response to angry rants from the oil industry.

The Oil Pollution Act was passed, and a $20 billion fund was set up to compensate victims of the corporate-made disaster. Although $20 billion may appear large, it is a drop in the bucket when it comes to paying for the actual damages. On Jan. 9, Louisiana officials reported that large sections of the state’s coastline are still “highly oiled.” (CNN, Jan. 9) Huge plumes of oil remain far below the surface, while entire industries have been abandoned.

The government and BP have moved to limit big business liability in two ways. First, in direct violation of the Oil Pollution Act, the rules under which compensation is being paid greatly limit the amount that can be collected. “It will be difficult, if not impossible for claimants to get full compensation for their damages unless they have a crystal ball,” says Richard Shore, who worked hard to collect damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (Huffington Post, Aug. 3)

The second method is more devious, and involves the recently released commission report. The study rightly concludes that BP’s misdeeds are not limited to them alone: “The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by a rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic.” (AP, Jan.6)

However, the oil drillers are confident that they will never be held truly accountable as an industry. By blaming the oil drilling industry, the government has effectively taken the heat off BP, which the capitalist markets immediately recognized. Thus, the rise in BP stock.

The capitalist class is confident that their ruse to protect BP and other big polluters will work because they believe that they are invincible and that the government will never hold them accountable for their countless crimes against humanity and the planet itself. They can keep on raking in megaprofits and putting safety and concern for the environment last, with relative impunity, unless there is a struggle waged by working people, environmentalists and other progressive people to push them back.
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