Who’s in Charge?

Today is the one-month anniversary of BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and it’s still spilling. Much has been said, much less done. The question that looms largest in my mind 30 days later is: Who’s in charge?

If you’ve been paying attention, the answer is clearly: BP. There’s some justification there – it’s BP’s mess, BP should clean it or at least pay to have it cleaned. But BP executives shouldn’t be in charge; they’ve proved their incompetence. Yet everything we’ve seen to date indicates BP is firmly in charge and is making decisions based not on what needs to be done, but what will protect its corporate interests. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is taking orders from the oil company. Consider:

Censorship. The US Coast Guard is pushing journalists and environmentalists away from oil-soaked beaches. You can follow the various links (Coast Guard press people deny it), but CBS News has the Coast Guard on tape says “These are BP’s rules, not ours.” Greenpeace has had first-hand experience with this one. A few days ago, one of our crews arrived at such an oil-soaked beach near the mouth of the Mississippi. The Coast Guard arrived and told our people to get off the beach. “Why?” they asked.

“It’s not safe,” the guardsman responded.

“But we’re wearing protective gear.” Surely the guard could have seen that for himself.

“Well, there’s a cleanup operation underway.”

“Where? We’re the only ones here.”

In the end, he was the guy with the gun, so our people left.

Video. As I mentioned last week, it took three weeks for the federal government to get permission from BP to release any video of the underwater oil plume. (Seeing the video might allow experts not on the BP payroll to tell us there’s a whole lot more oil in the Gulf than we’re being told.) Who’s in charge? Finally, yesterday, on the eve of the month anniversary, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) got BP to send him the live feed, which he’s posted on his committee’s web site.

Damages. Meanwhile, Congress is debating whether to raise the cap for economic damages from an oil spill from $75 million to $10 billion. The oil company is on the hook for cleanup costs; this pertains to economic damages suffered by fishermen, coastal residents, etc. If an oil company is found to have acted in a grossly negligent way – as BP and Transocean seem to have – there is no damage cap.

Nonetheless, why is there a damage cap at all? If a corporation wants to engage in an inherently risky practice, should it not bear the full risk? This, of course, is the same Congress that does not require operators of nuclear plants to have insurance.

As we saw in the Exxon Valdez spill, ExxonMobil eventually got its damage award knocked down to 10 cents on the dollar, so again – why the cap?

The oil companies say that if they do not receive prior indemnification for the consequences of their actions, they’re not going to look for oil. Good, maybe we can get a real energy policy in America now.

Self-Regulation. It’s not just the US. The Associated Press today reports that all over the world, nations increasingly put oil companies in charge and the regulators do as the oil barons tell them.

“It comes down to granting flexibility for oil companies to select the best technology and practices to ensure safety on their offshore installations, as long as they meet the regulator’s minimum standards,” the report says. But in the case of the Deepwater Horizon, “best technology and practices” were not driving decisions – speed and cost savings were. What else can one expect from self-regulation?

Sure, it’s difficult and expensive to adequately oversee offshore rigs, but given that today’s oil corporations are the most profitable entities ever devised by humans, you think they could afford to pay the kind of taxes that will fund adequate regulation.

I – and millions of other Americans – had hoped this kind of rule-by-oil-companies would have ended in January 2009. There’s a bumper sticker I have to scrape off my car.

© Mark Floegel. 2010

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