Tuesday, June 1, 2010

49. On the British Petroleum's Ecological Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

We just learned that the British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20 may continue “through August.” Simultaneously, Carol Browner, President Obama’s climate change and energy policy advisor, claimed without any sense of irony that: “We re prepared for the worse.  We have been prepared from the beginning.” 

Nothing is further from the truth.  Mr. Obama addressed the BP disaster 38 days after it began. And only in calculated public relations response to give the appearance that the government cares and acts to protect public interest in the face of the worse oil spill in the U.S. history.

Facts of the case known so far reveal the following truth: the U.S. government serves corporate interests, in this case the interests of BP (the second largest European oil and gas company). 

For decades, the U.S. government has granted the oil and natural gas industry’s every wish. In particular, it has allowed it “to police itself” (a very curious concept).  For years, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the arm of the Interior Department that oversees drilling in the gulf, has minimized the environmental risks of drilling. In the BP case, it failed to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary. It exempted many offshore drillers from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills. And it specifically allowed BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis.
Given this cozy relationship, rampant corruption in the MMS should not come as a surprise. According to reports by Department of Interior’s inspector general, abuses at the agency went beyond undue influence: there was “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” — cocaine, sexual relationships with industry representatives, and more. Protecting the environment was presumably the last thing on these government employees’ minds. During the month following the April 20 rig blow up, MMS gave 23 new permits for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  This proved to be too much.  MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum and several key employees of the MMS resigned or were fired (without a public explanation).
It is estimated that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil spills into the Gulf each day.  At this rate, total spill has already surpassed what was spilled into the ocean by Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989.  Yet, so far the government has stood aside leaving to BP the task of stopping the leakage and clean up.  For its part, BP has kept the public and even the government in the dark about the critical decisions and actions it has taken both before and after the spill.  The public does not know exactly how and why the rig exploded and what role BP management decisions played in the series of events leading to it.  In its efforts to stop the leakage, BP has been less than forthcoming with the public and the government. For example, many scientists and environmentalists, and the government asked BP not to use chemical dispersants Corexit EC9500A and Corexit EC9527A as they are deemed highly toxic to marine life. Yet BP claimed these chemicals to be safe and continued to use them. So, it is entirely disingenuous of the President or his advisor Ms. Browner to claim that the government is and has been prepared to deal with this disaster in the interest of protecting public interest and nature's ecological balance.  In the final analysis,  it is the oil and natural gas industry that derives the U.S. government policies and not the other way around.  

And the industry knows this well.  In a letter published in the New York Times on May 29, Erik Milito of American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry organization, reminds the readers that
“Access to affordable energy affects every sector of our economy, every state and every American family.  Furthermore, oil and natural gas are key ingredients in manufacturing of thousands of products…that Americans use daily. 
“Halting domestic development won’t reduce our need for oil and natural gas; it will only outsource it. And it will place thousands of jobs, both offshore and on-shore, at risk…
“Our industry is not waiting for any commission to initiate improvements in safety and environmental performance. We’ve already brought together the sharpest minds in the business to advise the Interior Department on how drilling can be made safer and more effective…” 
The industry knows from historical experience that after the dust is cleared everything goes back to business as usual as it did in the case of Exxon Valdes.  It is instructive to recall that Exxon, despite of spending two billion dollars did not retrieve more than 14% of the oil spilled in the 1989 leakage.  There is no reason to hope that BP will do any better (don't be fooled by promises of "new technology." Was it not such promises are used to drill in ever more dangerous places?).
Of course, the dominance of the oil and natural gas industry in public policy is not limited to this industry. In the past two years, we have witnessed the use of taxpayers money for the multi-trillion dollar bailout of the financial industry and the bailout of GM and Chrysler.  In each case, we have been told that the American pubic cannot afford letting these corporations fail!  In the health care reform debate, we witnessed how the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries and other corporate and financial interets were able to block any reform that would consider health care as human rights, not a arena to make a profit. Just before the BP rig blow out, Obama administration broke a 30 year policy of not opening up new off-shore sites for drilling and budgeted billions for financing for new nuclear power plants.
It is a simple fact that capitalism is the rule of capital and a socioeconomic system in which making profits comes before human's or nature's needs.  It is also a simple fact that, in the final analysis, in any capitalist system the government is nothing more than the executive committee of capitalist ruling class.  These are essential truths that should frame crafting policies to protect the public and the ecological and environmental systems we depend on for our lives.  However, this very basic fact is totally lost to the U.S. environmental establishment that has a cozy relationship with "its" corporate and government “partners.”  

So far,  U.S. and international socialist movements have also defaulted in their responsibility to provide broad response to defend nature and society against their capitalist enemies (Make no mistake, this not an "American" disaster but an ecological disaster of vast proportions. Already eastern U.S. seaboard and Caribbean nations such as Cuba and Bahamas are threatened).  This is because environmental concerns are not seen as part of “working class interests,” or if they are, they are seen as such because they threaten the livelihood of working people.  Nature and other species are treated as if they are "resources" without any rights of their own.  But we humans are merely a small part of the magnificent web of life on Earth. Without a living planet there can be no human society.  And a living planet can only be defended against capitalist and industrial society if we can envision an ecosocailist future in which we live not in constant struggle to dominate nature but to learn to live in harmony with it.  


NTROPEE said...

Was a blowout like this inevitable in a capitalist system where the government is simply an "executive committee for the capitalist class"? You imply that it was, yet you also say: "In the BP case, [the MMS] failed to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world,..." If this backup system could have prevented the spill as you imply, and many other capitalist countries use it, then catastrophic blowouts aren't an INEVITABLE result of capitalism in action...or are they?

Kamran Nayeri said...

Thank you for raising a very interesting question. My main point in the post is to argue for an ecosocialist perspective in contrast to the usual “free enterprise or regulated capitalism” so much in vogue lately. The environmentalist establishment and reformist socialist parties tend to favor “regulated capitalist” arguments because they believe the government to be at least to a large measure independent of the capitalist class.

I would argue that in a capitalist economy and society the capitalist class rules. There was no doubt about who the ruling classes were in the feudal and slave-owing societies. It is hard to argue that we have a different logic in a capitalist society (I set aside latecomer capitalist societies with undemocratic forms of government) .

Thus, I suggest that in the U.S. capitalist economic imperative dominates public policy making and executive/administrative processes. However, as I stated in the same sentence that included the assertion that “government is nothing more than the executive committee of the ruling class,” I qualified it with the words “in the final analysis.” That is the relationship between the capitalist class and the government is not a direct relationship. There are good reasons for that. For one thing, the capitalist class is differentiated between industrial, financial, merchant, and land-owning capitalists. Within each groups, they are competing interests. While there is broad interest of the class that each group supports (against the working classes and other social layers), various groups compete for influence in the government.

The bourgeois democratic parliamentary form of government gives the appearance that politics is separate and apart from economics. After all, one person, one vote system makes us believe that ordinary citizens, majority of them workers, can decide who their elected officials are. The capitalists being a small minority cannot directly pick their choices. This serves the overall ideological purpose of the capitalist class very well and allow for inner-capitalist competition for influence in the government.

If this account is generally acceptable, then it becomes clear that the interests of the public and the environment and ecological systems take a back seat to the capitalist interests in policymaking and policy enforcement. Thus, “accidents” such as the recent Massey Energy Company’s coalmine and the British Petroleum rig expulsion occur. In both these cases, companies involved have the highest number of violations in their respective industry. Thus, what happened in each case was not really an accident. These companies operations have the the highest probability of an "accident" because of cost-cutting. And, in each case, the companies involved enjoyed a cozy relationship with the “regulators.”

Why other countries have better valves for their offshore drilling projects? Perhaps, because of higher standards due to various factors, including stronger labor unions. But as long as capitalist economy persists and social production is carried for private appropriation (that is, for profits) the public and nature is endangered.

I hope this explanation is satisfactory. I plan to write a second piece on what to do with the oil and natural gas industry and with such public and ecological hazards.

NTROPEE said...

I would suggest that your analysis is somewhat superficial & abstract. I think if you look carefully at our political system you'll see it has been captured and "Balkanized" by the sectors of capital most concerned with the particular bureaucracies and agencies whose policies effect their bottom line. Some bureaucracies impact many interests, others are more focused.

The Marine Mining Service (MMS) is VERY narrowly focused and was easily captured by big oil. Therefore, BP was able to block a wider discussion of the dangers of oil drilling & the precautions necessary to prevent a blowout by getting the MMS to sidestep the legal requirement for an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) as required by NEPA (The National Environmental Policy Act).*

This effectively excluded other sectors of the capitalist class (fishing, tourism, etc.) from involvement, as well as environmental groups and other sectors of the concerned public. Had NEPA been enforced, an EIS would have required an extensive period of fact-finding and public input involving any stakeholders potentially effected by offshore drilling. It also could have revealed in more detail the environmental threats posed to communities, ecosystems and endangered species.

At that point, opponents could have used the Endangered Species Act to TRY to block offshore drilling permits. This legal action could have involved the many sectors of capital concerned about the fate of their businesses in the event of a serious oil spill.

It's hard to say exactly how this legal conflict would have played out, but Big oil's powerful lobbying has heavily influenced the White House, Congress and broad sectors of media & society in favor a fast-tracking oil exploration off the coast ("drill, baby, drill"). When you combine this with their capture of the primary agency involved in granting drilling permits and collecting royalties, you get a lock on policy formation that effectively excluded other sectors of capital (and the public) that were far more wary of this activity.

*This exclusion is called a FONSI (finding of no significant impact) and it can be challenged in court, but they rarely are because the courts tend to defer to the expertise of the agency that granted the FONSI.

Kamran Nayeri said...

Thank you for a more in depth and concrete analysis. I am sure readers of your question and explanation learn something useful about the intricate legal relations among various sectors of the capitalist class. Still, please note that my purpose is to focus attention on the need for an independent mass ecosocialist movement with the goal of replacing the capitalist system with a society that can coexist in harmony with nature. I am fearful that the existing environmental establishment magnifies whatever reforms that potentially is achievable by trying to side with one sector of the U.S. capitalist class against another as it has historically done (this is called lesser evil politics); they see the trees but not the forest. Of course, if and when we have a significant ecosocialist movement in this country, we could and should fight effectively for reforms as stepping stones to radical social change and insights such as what you offer would be gainfully employed.

NTROPEE said...

You seem to be saying that trying to develop a careful, concrete analysis of the economic & political divisions within the capitalist class (and the political system) in order to figure out how to legally and politically exploit them to our benefit is only worthwhile if we have an independent, mass eco-socialist movement. Does this mean that until this movement somehow materializes, we must be content with impotent condemnations of capitalism in general and grandiose but vague calls for eco-socialism? Doesn't this approach hand the essential struggle for planet-protecting reforms over to the very reformists that can't see the forest for the trees?

If you ask me, the trick is figuring out how to nurture and grow an eco-socialist core while participating in these reform movements. Moderate environmentalists are allies who may become convinced of the need for eco-socialism over time. But I don't think we'll convince them by standing on the sidelines polishing our "correct line" and insisting that it's eco-socialism or nothing. We must bring our analysis of the situation into the struggle and use it to turn every opportunity to protect the planet into a movement-building opportunity as well.

Our main target, at this point, are those elements of the capitalist class who refuse to move toward a sustainable relationship with the planet. This doesn't mean we don't question and expose the limitations of green capitalism. However, just because we believe that green capitalism is ultimately a dysfunctional oxymoron doesn't mean that, in the immediate strategic situation, we can't pursue alliances with anyone willing to oppose big oil on this issue.

Kamran Nayeri said...

Perhaps you misunderstand me. The sentence of the last short response was: "Of course, if and when we have a significant ecosocialist movement in this country, we could and should fight effectively for reforms as stepping stones to radical social change and insights such as what you offer would be gainfully employed." You misread my "significant ecosocialist movement" in the above sentence as "mass ecosocialist movement."

The approach I propose is not new. You can find it in Rosa Luxemborg's Reform or Revolution (1900), or Leon Trotsky's Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (1938). In essence, how many and how much of the tasks of education, agitation and organization, and action we can do depends of the size and quality of the tendency that is consciously working for radical social change. Small groups of revolutionaries have always been called “propaganda groups" because to seriously agitate or make efftive change, they have to be of a certain minimum size and quality.

Unless, your estimate of number and quality of ecosoialists in the U.S. is much higher than mine, you perhaps should agree that we are still essentially educational groups, even when we know and tell about legal tools available for a serious fight back.

By the way, you and others with an interest in potential legal challenges facing BP and other corporations involved the spill may want to read today's Op-Ed piece "Prosecuting Crimes Agains the Earth" by David Uhlmann, Professor of Law at University of Michigan and former director of the Environmental Crimes Section at the department of Justice from 2000 to 2007.