I recently heard a story on BBC about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. It consisted of a long monologue by one of the survivors of the explosion. I was driving at the time, and emotionally taken over by what I heard. In the first place, the man who spoke was speaking with my accent–not just any Southern accent, because accents differ from region to region, but my own voice patterns from Louisiana. He used expressions that I haven’t heard for a long time, like, “We commenced to move toward . . . .” He said the flames from the explosion were four stories high. Several times he said, “It was like looking into hell.” He described the panic as men went for the lifeboats and as some jumped into the sea, to avoid being burned alive. Eleven of his work mates died that day, their bodies never found.
The explosion occurred on April 20, over a month ago, and vast amounts of oil continue to spew out of the well, shutting down fishing over 46,000 square miles of ocean and coating fragile wetlands and marshes with globs of oil. An environmentalist from Portland is going down to help save some of the birds that have been coated with oil.
How could such an explosion happen? Who is to blame?
I will not try to navigate the technical reasons for the explosion, but let’s look at the political, for that is where the real blame lies.
I give as evidence the following observations:
–the Minerals Management Service is a U.S. government agency thought by many to be among the most dysfunctional agencies that exist. Some employees (literally) were in bed with big oil representatives, took lavish presents, and even let some companies fill out their own inspection reports. Question: Why was an agency with such significant responsibilities allowed to degenerate to this point?
–In 2005 the Energy Policy Act was passed by Congress. The chair of the committee was Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a friend of big oil. The Act provided for billions of dollars in tax and royalty relief, to stimulate drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore sites. At the time, oil company profits were setting records. Ever since the Reagan presidency, the government has been aggressively issuing offshore drilling permits and has given the oil industry tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks. Question: Why does the oil industry need government subsidies?
–In 2007 the national laboratory headed by scientist Steven Chu received most of a $500 million grant from BP to develop alternative energy sources through a new entity called Energy Biosciences Institute. Dr. Chu received the grant from Steven E. Koonin, a physicist quite close to Chu. Now Dr. Chu serves as Obama’s energy secretary, and Dr. Koonin followed Dr. Chu to Washington and became the under secretary of energy for science. The White House seems helpless in the light of the oil spill and issued a statement Tuesday that the Energy Department “doesn’t have jurisdiction over the oil spill.” Question: Can anyone doubt that oil corporations because of their cozy relationships with government have inordinate influence in government policy?
–As for BP itself, let’s take a look at the record. On March 23, 2005, explosions and fires at a Texas City refinery run by BP caused 15 deaths and 180 injuries. Investigators called it “one of the worst industrial disasters in recent U.S. history.” The board found “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation.” Further, in 2007 BP agreed to pay around $373 million in fines and restitution for the Texas explosion, for leaks of crude oil in Alaska, and for fraud for conspiring to corner the market on the price of propane gas. Question: Given BP’s abominable record, why did our government not only give this company permission to drill at such dangerous levels and also give them a waiver, so they could avoid giving a detailed report on the effect of their operations on the immediate environment?
–Investigators have noted that there were red flags indicating the possibility of an impending blowout 24 hours before the rig explosion occurred. There were several pressure readings indicating that gas was leaking into the well, a very serious indicator of trouble. And there were other critical decisions, like replacing heavy mud in the pipe with seawater, a move which increased the risk of explosion. Question: Is anyone surprised, given BP’s record, that the company pushed ahead, despite obvious risks?
So how cheap are the lives of the men who do the dirty and dangerous work of getting our oil out of the ground? What price our fisheries and wetlands? How much do we care about the living creatures that are destroyed? The health hazards? The beaches?
To the President and to Congress: There will always be greedy, careless people in this world, and some of them will gain a good deal of power. It is your job as our elected officials to protect us citizens and our fragile earth from the likes of them. In regard to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you have failed us, failed us drastically. Have you learned from this tragedy, or will there be more of the same?