BP to Blame? How About Us?

The more things don’t change the more they magnify the shame.  The oil shocks of the 1970s precipitated “don’t be fuelish” campaigns trumpeting conservation.  A 55 MPH highway speed limit was imposed.  Cars shrank.  Carter turned down the thermostat and put on a sweater.  Two decades later, our oilman-turned-president confessed that the country was addicted to oil, a habit that funds both sides in the “War on Terror.”  Yet by-and-by our oil dependence grows.

We now confront an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf.  Between 25 and 50 millions of barrels of the noxious stuff have already leached into the waters in the past forty-nine days, and the leak may not be fully sealed until August.  The cost of the disaster— to fragile ecosystems, to the tourism and fishing industries, etc.—is incalculable.  The natural inclination during crises is to search for scapegoats.  Look no further than BP.

The company has a dismal safety record.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed its biggest fine ever on BP, $87 million, for safety violations at the company’s Texas oil refinery, which contributed to a deadly 2005 explosion at the facility killing 15 and injuring 170.  The company agreed to operate under probation for three years thereafter.  A year later, a poorly maintained BP pipeline in Alaska failed, pouring oil into Prudhoe Bay.  As columnist Frank Rich relates, government inspectors cited BP for fully 97 percent of all “flagrant violations” by the entire oil and gas exploration industry.

There is ample evidence that BP’s culture of playing fast and loose with safety played a critical role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Survivors of the explosion have spoken of having their concerns of building pressure on the wellhead being summarily dismissed by BP officials.  Such allegations and others are sure to be closely examined by the Justice Department following its announcement of a criminal and civil investigation of the company and others operating at the site.

Growing frustration with BP, however justified, has created a febrile atmosphere that has the potential to obscure the real culprits.  A piece in the Huffington Post by author and blogger Jeffrey Feldman captures the mood.  He relates, “I had a strange experience the other day when I passed by a BP gas station: as I caught glimpse of the BP logo, an anger so visceral welled up in my stomach that it actually made me question my commitment to a lawful society.”  After sublimated an urge to get “Medieval” on the corporate symbol, Feldman calls for boycotting BP and, somewhat vaguely, for better stewardship of the environment.

The anger is misplaced.  BP’s behavior may be monstrous but we are its enablers.  For decades, the country has obstinately refused to address its oil dependence.  Such is our addiction.  Pricing carbon to more accurately reflect its actual cost—environmental impact, wars to secure supplies, etc.—is long overdue, but even the most tepid move in that direction replete with sops to the oil industry faces an uphill battle in the Senate.  “Cheap” oil is thus an entitlement that BP and others are happy to provide, laying bare the hypocrisy of our post-spill hand wringing.

Given the prevailing responsibly-free ethos, the Gulf catastrophe may well lead to permanent restrictions on domestic deep-water oil exploration, but not any comprehensive measures to reduce overall demand.  This will leave the country even more dependent on foreign crude, effectively outsourcing drilling to places like Nigeria, which already supplies 40 percent of all US oil imports.  As the Guardian recently reported, more oil leaks every year from rigs, terminals, pipelines, and other petroleum conveyances in the Niger Delta than has poured into the Gulf over the past six weeks.  Between 1970 and 2000, the Delta experienced more than 7,000 spills.  Life expectancy in the region has fallen to 40 years in the past two generations, which many blame on environmental contamination.

Judith Kimerling, an academic at City University of New York, comments: “Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care.”  It would be nice to dismiss the observation as cynical.  But sadly, as long as we Americans get our cheap petroleum fix, foreign as well as domestic spills may not register highly, provided we can complain bitterly about the ghastly oil companies that furnish our hydrocarbon narcotic.

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