Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that 50 days ago a British Petroleum offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the waters. Since then, we have watched in horror as the oil crept towards our shores, ruining livelihoods and destroying wildlife. How does something like this happen?
It begins before the spill, in an astonishing tale of corporate greed and government deregulation. British Petroleum, like just about any company, has one priority: profits. However, the methods they use to maximize profits are borderline criminal. Take, for example, their Alaska program. A 2004 report determined that BP has "a pattern of the company intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns" and that "managers shaved maintenance costs by using aging equipment for as long as possible." This use of old equipment without any sort of oversight, within or without the company, led to the Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill in 2000. A pipe was kept in use for so long without maintenance or replacement that it corroded to the point of complete failure, eventually spilling over 200,000 gallons into the bay.
Then, in 2005, a BP oil refinery in Texas exploded, killing 15 people. Naturally this caused a public relations fiasco, which led a BP spokesperson to promise an update in safety systems. A year later, BP was fined $87 million due to unimproved safety in the same plant. The Environmental Protection Agency attempted to bring criminal charges upon BP executives implicit in this mess, but they were denied by the Justice Department, part of a pattern of lax oversight likely influenced by the millions of dollars BP has spent on lobbying. Any actions that EPA agents have attempted to take since that time have been stopped by federal prosecutors.
This brings us to the Deepwater Horizon leak we are currently dealing with. Recently released records show that the Mineral Management Service authorized dozens of offshore drilling projects without obtaining environmental impact permits. The MMS has, apparently, been caving in to the lobbyists rather than doing its job, despite both external and internal pressure. The report quotes an anonymous scientist who stated “You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact.” All of this was allowed to go on, while BP engineers reported that on Deepwater Horizon "sensors and their shutoff systems were not operating," and a "backstop mechanism that should have prevented the engines from running wild apparently failed—and so did the air-intake valves that were supposed to close if gas entered the engine room." A mechanic also testified that "the engine room wasn't equipped with a gas alarm system that could have shut off the power." These could have been fixed, but that would have been detrimental to BP's bottom line. So: kaboom.
What happens when a company increases profit by decreasing safety? What happens when, despite a horrific record of environmental and human destruction, the government sides with the oil corporation instead of those that it is supposed to protect? What happens when we are so addicted to oil that despite of all the warning signs, we look the other way?
That is what happens.