Curtain Raiser

The Slick Charm of Oil Spillers, Colltares

When a barge carrying almost a million gallons of marine fuel oil collided with another ship in Texas Saturday, spilling oil from one of its tanks into the Galveston Bay, it barely registered with the wall-to-wall Malaysian plane disappearance slash Russia’s Crimea annexation coverage.
Although those are indeed news worth covering, albeit not breaking at the moment, the risk of becoming oblivious to oil spills can’t be overstated. Specially when even minor ones, like this one appears to be, still have the potential to disrupt irreparably the local environment.
Besides, they should always at least remind us about the Big One: the BP-caused Gulf of Mexico crude oil spill of 2010.
In fact, a funny thing happened about that disaster, a.k.a. the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the worst in history by most accounts: despite having killed 11 people, and a still unknown but surely staggering number of marine species, having caused permanent damage to that once pristine coastal environment, plus destroying another unknown number of local fishing business, it really didn’t affect much the oil industry.
In the sole measure that counts for the world’s five biggest oil companies, profit in 2013 reached $93 billion, helped by a combination of tax exemptions and loopholes that allow them to duck costly liabilities in case of mismanagement and, yes, oil spills.
BP, which is one of those five, is a typical, if somewhat pathetic, example of how it all works. After a U.S. government Sept. 2011 report found its unit, Macondo Prospect, guilty of operating a defective well, it was fined almost $5 billion and ordered to set up an estimated $20 billion fund for compensations, besides losing its fat licenses to operate in the gulf, in what should have been a tight lid case of crime and punishment.
Surprise, surprise. After four years, and the fund reportedly having cost the company twice that initial amount, not all compensation claims have been honored and much of the gulf states’ fishing and tourism economy remains depressed, while its ecosystems’ diversity may never recover.
It gets worse. As its other giant partners in crime, Transocean and Halliburton, have all but absconded from the public eye, BP’s been spending millions in ads, crying foul and litigating all it can to fight claims on the basis of their strict merit and not, their overall legitimacy, as it should.
The full-page newspaper ads, suffused with outrage at what it alleges are ‘fictitious’ filings for compensation, almost give you the idea that BP’s the real victim here, being unfairly taken advantage of by unscrupulous lawyers, and that, in the rush to quell public anger and the huge backlash that hurt its sales for a whole, gasp, minute, it got into a ‘too generous’ agreement, that’s benefiting undeserving parties.
Since we know how skilled corporate legal teams usually are, and how they always prevail in the end, our hearts are definitely not bleeding for BP. But such cry wolf antics was, nevertheless, getting some mileage, as indeed, the process has become chaotic. Until a judge set them straight.
Ordering BP to resume paying the millions of dollars in business-loss claims that it’d unilaterally held, our new hero, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Leslie Southwick, ruled the other week that the settlement agreement does not require claimants to submit evidence in order to be paid.
Because, just to keep it all in perspective, no amount of settlement monies paid would be enough to fix the environmental damage the spill caused, and for which much less has been done, let alone restore confidence to a myriad of small business owners who have since simply folded.
BP, of course, will continue arguing and appealing till the dolphins return to the Gulf, naturally, to keep on increasing profits, even if by ‘unnatural’ ways, if you pardon the pun, and, again, will eventually prevail, judging by the Obama administration’s dismal record on the matter. What, you didn’t think that we were going to leave President Obama and his own legal team (the Justice Department) off the hook, did you?
For the president had one of those unambiguous ‘opportunities,’ right at the dawn of his term at the White House, when that cheap valve blew up and gushed an estimated 5 million barrels of crude for three months straight, to make good of his pro-environment campaign rhetoric.
And at first, it seemed that he was really going to seize that moment and implement the kind of long term strategy required for an event of that magnitude. But soon enough he got distracted by other issues and now it’s clear that things didn’t work out the way that they need to.
Now, despite that appeals ruling, the EPA’s just agreed to allow BP to compete again for hefty federal contracts and lucrative oil exploration leases. Right on cue, it jumped at an Interior Department auction of licenses held in New Orleans last week, with a bid worth over $40 million.
As for the latest slick on the waters off Texas, in a habitat for migratory birds, no less, crews continue efforts to contain the still unknown amount of oil spilled. As usual, much of those crews are formed by voluntaries, and public and nonprofit agencies, since it’d be obviously too risky to leave it to the as of yet unnamed companies that own the thick, sticky oil known as bunker that’s now contaminating the water.
We could delve in semantics here too, as in how many times it takes an accident to no longer be considered as such, if it keeps repeating itself over and over again. Or we could get down and dirty with the many spills that have happened since the Gulf of Mexico’s tragedy.
Instead, there’s another clear and present danger hovering in the background, not just of catastrophic oil spills but the U.S.’s own energy policy, the thousands of miles long gigantic snake slithering in the room: the Keystone Pipeline project which, if the latest indications offer any hint, may be signed, (hardly) sealed and delivered from the Obama administration straight to the pockets of oil corporations operating in the gulf.
It’s possible to prevent that from happening, if hope’s still effective at galvanizing hearts and minds, but it doesn’t look good. Perhaps this newest spill can be the best excuse to phase out a project that’s rife with more potential to cause damage to Americans than benefit the economy.
As for why dedicate a whole diatribe about an unfortunate but routine oil spill at a place that’s already a terrible record of them, it may be useful to remind everyone that 25 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez tanker collided with a reef in Alaska and spilled over 700 thousand barrels of crude into the Prince William sound, igniting one of the biggest oil cleanup efforts on record. The area, though, will never be the same.
Neither will we. Have a great final week of March. WC



2 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. It was always going to be a whitewash and, from expressing great concern from the start, without accepting blame, anyone familiar with global corporate public image machines knew BP were going run circles round the small guys to make them feel like the criminals, just for trying to get their lives back, sooner or later. Especially once the event faded from from the headlines.

    But the decision not to bring charges of gross negligence, at the very least, and manslaughter at the most, against the companies involved, for the eleven workers who died, is both immoral and despicable.

    Only jail sentences will make bankers and global companies understand that when they are criminally guilty, they are criminally responsible, and once it is proven, they must be forced to accept the consequences of their crimes. That is enshrined in law.

    For anyone causing a road accident, through proven negligence of this magnitude that caused the deaths of eleven victims, there would be mass public outrage if those responsible didn’t receive hefty prison sentences. So why has nobody yet been charged?


    • colltales says:

      It”s really unconscionable, Bryan. That they (corporations, big wigs, wealthy individuals) try to get away with crime, I’m not surprised. But when the system is easily rigged in their favor, it’s outrageous. Thanks for the input.


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