Bigger Slicks, Sicker Society

Against the Current, No. 147, July/August 2010

The Editors

CORPORATE CRIME IS strikingly analogous to the BP slick. The visible stuff is the slime on the surface that gets most of the attention. You can see it, taste it, smell it. The bigger part stays underwater where it poisons and kills silently, out of view, gets caught in the currents and escapes containment — just like those oil “plumes” poised to swirl around the Florida peninsula and head up the Eastern seaboard.

The Massey Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion on April 6 was the kind of crime that’s easiest to spot once it’s happened — straight-up mass murder of 29 workers by a corporation that bought the state of West Virginia, used its money to drive out the mineworkers’ union, and sent explicit internal emails that “running coal” pays the bills and safety regulations don’t. If there were a semblance of justice in America, the executive echelon of Massey would be facing federal trial right now under the RICO statutes — that stands for Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organizations — sharing cells where they could swap lies with the authors of George W. Bush’s torture memos. That’s not how it works in the corporate capitalist USA, whether under Bush or Barack Obama.

The BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe has consequences that the experts can’t even guesstimate. Certainly, like the Massey explosion, this is a crime against the dead and injured workers, their families and the community. There’s a deadly similarity in the buildup and sudden eruption of underground methane believed to have caused the Massey and BP explosions — and the fatal disasters at the Raspadskaya mine in Russia on May 8 and at Pingdingshan city in China on June 21 as well — and in the cozy relations between industry and government regulatory lapdog agencies.

But where the Massey explosion reads like a return to the 1920s, BP’s world-class crime against nature and humanity was perpetrated with the most advanced drilling techniques, ostensibly refined to the point where oil could be extracted a mile below sea level without the remotest risk of an uncontrolled blowout. It simply couldn’t happen, and if it did, there were multiple layers of fail-safe mechanisms to prevent damage. Only afterward have we learned that BP had essentially no plan in place to deal with a catastrophic blowout, and that the preventive equipment was fatally defective.

In this issue of Against the Current, Brian Marks looks at the impact of the spill on the people of the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana. It’s staggering to contemplate the sheer scale of this act of corporate ecocide, an uncontrolled experiment whose full consequences no one may fully comprehend for decades to come. It’s even more unbearable to consider that what’s being inflicted on Gulf Coast communities is a taste of what oil companies have done for decades to whole peoples in the Niger Delta or in Ecuador (for an account of the latter, see Bob Herbert’s column in The New York Times, Saturday, June 5, 2010).

Why Regulation Fails

What failed here? Regulatory agencies that didn’t do their jobs because they were bribed, or complacent, or powerless, or all three? Some defective societal culture that enables greed unchecked by moral considerations? Or, perhaps, all of us driving our cars and consuming the products of a carbon-fuel-dependent economy?

On various levels it is partly all these things, but none of these explanations come to grips with how capitalism and “the market” actually work. The reality is that capitalism without government regulation is an impossibility — and in today’s world, it’s a dead planet walking. Let’s begin, then, with the systemic regulatory failures.

Obviously there can be no excuse for the agency that was supposed to strictly oversee the safety of deep-underwater oil drilling becoming a den where regulators and regulated swapped gifts, pornography and allegedly sexual favors. Very late in the day, president Obama conceded he had been late in getting to grips with the “longstanding culture of corruption” in the Minerals Management Service (MMS).

Yet what is the big surprise here? Isn’t the regulatory failure in oil drilling exactly what happened in the financial industry, where banks “too big to fail” engaged in derivatives schemes too arcane to understand, while officials happily moved from the industry to government and back again as the profits, too juicy to forgo, piled up?

The very power and wealth of the corporations, which make regulation necessary, are precisely what undermine regulatory systems and ultimately turn the regulators into enablers. Straight-up bribery is only the tip of iceberg. The regulatory system itself becomes absorbed into a corporate-government nexus. So it was that (for example) MMS was responsible both for supervising the oil-drilling industry and maximizing the royalties the government would receive, and as we now know, corporate operatives would fill out the agency’s “compliance reports” in pencil to be written over in ink by MMS employees.

The story has repeated over and over again — in the case of pharmaceutical industry, in the always-deferred gasoline efficiency standards for the auto industry (prior to its bankruptcy), and in periodic disastrous failures of the food safety system. This doesn’t mean that the struggle for regulation should be abandoned; rather, its inherent limitations need to be clearly understood in a system dominated by corporate capital and the profit imperative.

In this context, how should the federal government’s response to the catastrophe be judged? There’s considerable criticism of president Obama in particular, much of it particularly cynical coming from the rightwing “Drill Here, Drill Now” crowd, and some utterly ridiculous — that he didn’t sounded sufficiently “angry”— but the inadequacies of the government response are a regulatory and programmatic failure on a more profound level.

President Obama’s horribly timed announcement shortly before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, calling for the large-scale expansion of offshore oil drilling, including in the Arctic — in order to pick up some conservative support for his climate-change bill! — was symptomatic of the trick bag in which he is placed both by the politics of corporate America and by his own centrist ideology.

We might have assumed after the BP blowout that this projected new drilling wouldn’t happen anytime soon, even though the Gulf of Mexico shouldn’t have to die to achieve this result. Unbelievably, however, a federal judge blocked the president’s six–month emergency moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

While the legal fight over this order continues as we go to press, it brutally illustrates two realities of the present moment. First, the right wing entrenched in the judiciary feels empowered to completely disrespect president Obama, even in a situation of national emergency that is widely considered an environmental 9/11. Compare this with the latitude given to the Bush “unitary executive” to facilitate detention without trial, not to mention torture.

At a deeper level, however, this outrageous judicial intervention gains its “legitimacy” from the fact that even now, with 50,000-100,000 barrels of crude spewing every day into the Gulf of Mexico as the hurricane season begins, the regional economy remains profoundly dependent upon the extraction and refining of oil. The loss of tens of thousands of jobs in those sectors — in the absence of an all-out program of a new sustainable economy not rooted in hydrocarbon energy dependence — appears to those affected as a threat equal to the spill itself. No such program is coming from the administration or Congressional Democrats.

What to Do Now?

Moratorium or no, the government gave BP way too long a leash, even if we accept the premise that only the corporation, not the government, has the technical means and sort-of-knowhow to plug the leak somehow, some way. It is outrageous that BP was allowed to take charge of the hiring for emergency cleanup — including sending folks out to skim oil without respirators. The experience of the Exxon Valdez spill two decades ago already showed that this will lead to both acute and long-term illnesses, as we also know from the devastated health of so many of the 9/11 first responders.

It is beyond indecency that BP was allowed initially to set itself up as the arbiter of what “legitimate claims” it would pay — telling people to submit two years of income tax returns to document their losses, and obviously implying that they could take what the company offered or face years of delay and ruinous costs if they chose to sue.

Better late than never, president Obama moved to remedy this situation at least partially. But BP’s $20 billion escrow account is barely a down payment on what the real costs will be. The minute it became clear that BP was lying about the scale of the blowout, the corporation should have been forced into receivership to ensure that its full assets were available for cleanup and compensation.

From the first day, the federal and affected state governments should have mounted a coordinated emergency response, with BP retaining the exclusive mandate to pay every penny of the cost. Might a faster government-initiated defense of the coastline have prevented some of the damage to the marshes? There will always be a haunting sense of an opportunity possibly lost.

If the oil corporations essentially act like organized crime bosses except with fewer morals, and the government’s efforts at regulation are at best inadequate if not complicit, then what kind of demands and fightback can be mounted to face this crisis? The righteous popular outrage that’s manifested in the spontaneous boycott of BP-labelled gas stations cries out for a program of fundamental change.

Brian Marks in his article raises cogent demands for what would amount to reparations for the Louisiana Coast in the form of expanded royalties, so that at least its residents don’t pay the price of the entire nation’s petro-addiction, as well as beginning to mitigate the habit. Very briefly we’d like to apply these principles to the big questions of the future of energy extraction and consumption.

Strict regulation is clearly required, but beyond that, the petro-addiction can’t be solved by finding new hydrocarbon sources at ever-deeper depths and pretending that these can be drilled safely and at low cost. If the Deepwater Horizon disaster teaches anything, it’s that “too deep to quickly cap” means “too deep to drill.”

But there are pitfalls to avoid. For one thing, the drill-baby-drill crowd will call for expanding the supposedly safer alternative of close-to-shore, shallow-water drilling. For another, the government itself — led by the president’s energy secretary Steven Chu — advocates the expansion of nuclear power, another false and ultimately fatal “solution.” And the insanity of mountaintop removal to mine coal is an ongoing disaster every bit as horrible as the Gulf oil spill.

There is no one-step leap to a carbon-free utopia, but the transition needs to begin right now, with a serious commitment that expanding the current energy base must be in solar and wind power — not in gouging out more oil wells or coal mines or nukes or the hideous “new” panacea of shale oil turning even more mountain ranges into waste dumps.

Renewable energy creates more jobs than are lost by abandoning the earth-destroying expansion of hydrocarbon extraction. It is an entirely rational and growth-consistent pathway, but not compatible with the profitmaking imperatives of the existing oil and coal industry. This industry, as it comes under more pressure, will become more criminal — not less — and more desperate to evade and eviscerate the attempts to regulate it.

The entire energy industry must be placed under democratic social control. To be sure, those of us in the richest countries will have to break our addiction to consuming things that are too destructive to produce, but the profit-driven “free market” cannot make those decisions.

Government regulation of the existing private industry can offer only bandaids for a malignant tumor. This struggle is about even more than preserving the priceless Gulf of Mexico and Arctic ecosystems. Business as usual means the suicide of civilization. Popular social mobilization and control is vital not only for combating corporate crime but for the survival of a society we can live in.

ATC 147, July-August 2010