British Petroleum (BP) is either engaging in a shell-game or incompetent, perhaps both. Initially it said 1,000 gallons was spewing daily from their damaged underwater well head. Then it altered this to 5,000 gallons. Scientists were skeptical once BP belatedly released underwater photos. After it inserted a tube into the wellhead, it said it was capturing 20% of the oil, about 5,000 gallons a day, which until then it claimed was the total leak. Later, real-time video suggested BP underestimated the spill by anywhere from 8 to 20-fold. Even if it had succeeded in plugging the well by “top killing” with a mixture of mud and cement, or even injecting golf balls and human hair, in its latest make-shift solution, there’s little doubt this spill is already bigger than the Exxon Valdez in 1989. And just why hasn’t BP used an explosive device to collapse the ocean floor around its leak, other than wanting to protect future interests in the area? If it takes two more months for a relief well to stop the gushing, the calamity will be unimaginable.
BP is as irresponsible about aquatic toxicology. In view of the scale of the gushing it’s not very reassuring when “experts” say that “oil is natural” and bacteria will ultimately break it down in the warm gulf waters. But BP knows that when the black sludge reaches the coastline its potential liability rises. To try to prevent this it has hastily been using oil dispersants. An estimated 2.6 million litres of an antifreeze-like chemical was used before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) belatedly called for a less toxic substance, after finding 25% of undersea life was dead.
Meanwhile the hurricane season is approaching. During the mammoth Exxon Valdez spill a storm with 70 mph winds spread the oil over a huge area. With record-breaking 29 degrees centigrade sea temperatures in the Atlantic, this hurricane season is expected to be exceptional and storm surges could make booms useless and push oil even further into the ecologically-rich estuaries. Environmental impacts ultimately traceable to our oil-dependent economy, compound to create even greater magnitude impacts. Global warming from carbon build-up and gargantuan oil spills are two sides of the ecocidal coin.
After a month of ill-conceived intervention failures, and BP setting up a “tip line” to get ideas about how to stop the leak, Obama announced a Presidential Commission to report in six months, saying we need to find “where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down.” But the issue is more fundamental than the obvious lack of oversight, and it’s time we called a spade a spade.
BP’S SPIN DOCTORS
Growing pressure for a permanent ban on deep-sea drilling put BP’s spin doctors hard to work. Speaking on BBC Radio, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward opposed a ban saying “the problems which affected the Apollo 13 moon mission had not resulted in the space program being halted and plane crashes did not stop people flying.” This spin shows how little BP’s top executive cares to understand the working of eco-systems. The Apollo was a one-time event, whereas the contamination of the Gulf is ongoing and cumulative. The main impact of an airplane crash is on the passengers, whereas the ongoing contamination of the Gulf will affect marine life, fragile coastal habitats and human settlements that depend on these. Searching for his own analogy for the widespread devastation, a grieving Louisiana crab fisher said it’s like an atomic bomb had been dropped on the Gulf.
More telling is the ideology that lies beneath BP’s farcical analogy. We’re told that progress depends upon corporate experts being allowed to improve technology by ongoing failure, one grand experiment on the earth and its creatures. BP treats the planet and its life-forms as resources to exploit. Oil is a commodity to sell on the market and keeping costs down creates a better profit margin. The Gulf is simply a means to an end; getting to deep-sea oil is a challenge to be met by corporate-run engineering. Other life forms that depend upon a healthy marine ecology don’t have any inherent right to live there, nor do nearby communities have a right to have the marine ecology protected.
The disaster exposes something unsettling about the political economy. The predominant economic ideology tells us there is a ‘free market’ where companies can make a profit if they take the risks of the marketplace. But now we find that US legislation caps BP’s liability at $75 million. You can be sure that having already spent $600 million, BP doesn’t want to have to cover the costs from coastal or fishery contamination. Louisiana’s seafood industry alone is worth $2.4 billion annually. Such corporate protection at the taxpayer’s expense is rampant. The Canadian nuclear industry also has its liability capped otherwise it couldn’t afford insurance for the eventuality of catastrophic accidents. Meanwhile tax write-offs are given to encourage corporations to stimulate the unsustainable economy.
WORSHIPPING FALSE GODS
Foresight, even wisdom, is required to transition to sustainable systems. All spiritual traditions talk of “false gods” and the dangers of delusion from identifying with the icons that go with these. It’s time to rethink what money represents. We all know that money gives us purchasing power; it enables us to access the necessities and pleasures of life. Those with little or no money likely know this best, while the rich can take their wealth for granted. Either way, money is extremely seductive.
Imagine a couple’s money coming from selling BP’s stocks before their value fell. Also imagine this couple buying a fancy retirement home and a yacht on the Gulf of Mexico, where they can live the good life and maybe even catch some tasty fish. But then BP’s offshore oil disaster happens. Oil starts washing up on the beach; it spreads into the marsh, where, in the quiet of retirement days, they love to watch birds care for their young. Soon the beach is closed, then the fishery, and then the housing market collapses and the value of their ocean-view home plummets. They abandon their yacht which is getting covered with oil steadily washing in from sea.
Means and ends must ultimately be congruent; if we want sustainability we have to replace unsustainable with sustainable activities. If we wish to protect and restore habitats we have to treat the planet differently, with deep, awe-inspiring respect. Reverence for the conditions of life has to trump making millions. But we have become divided unto ourselves. We are all a bit like the person I am describing; we don’t easily realize this until toxic resource extraction comes to our back yard. Then the loss of our quality of life is justified as a trade-off for someone else’s economic growth. BP’s CEO appealed to this delusional view of self-interest when he opposed a ban on off-shore drilling. However, the scale of harm possible from multinationals, whether exploiting on land or sea, is so great that local habitats and economies are now jeopardized worldwide. And as the scale of these ecocidal events has grown it becomes more difficult to engage in denial. Meanwhile we all ponder what to do with our deepening ecological awareness