Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We actually already know what causes oil spills

Pretty much any normal person who looks at photos from BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico must feel a little sick. Oiled birds and stained beaches, tough old fishermen crying, tourist attractions closing, maybe for good. It’s a disaster.
BP has screwed the pooch. U.S. government regulators dropped the ball. Local governments — especially in Louisiana — have been in bed with oil companies so long they thought they had a real marriage.
But despite the blame attached to all of them, I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, “It’s really everybody’s fault, you know.” We all use oil or gasoline one way or another, they argue, so we all share responsibility for the spill.
Let’s call bullshit on that right now. Everything we know so far about BP’s management of the Deepwater Horizon project points the accusatory finger straight at them: lax management, cavalier attitudes, sloppy maintenance. They were enabled in this, it seems, by regulators at the Minerals Management Service who’d been wined, dined and even bedded by the very folks they were supposed to be watching. It’s a sorry sight.
Yet in a way, we do all share responsibility, because we should have seen this coming.
I’ve been there. I was the editor of the Anchorage Daily News in March 1989 when an Exxon tanker with a drunken skipper plowed into Bligh Reef, spilling millions of gallons of crude and destroying coastline, villages and lifestyles all over Alaska’s southern coast. About a month after the crash — while crude was still sloshing back and forth in Prince William Sound, I wrote about what I thought causes such tragedies:
“Ask an Alaskan today what causes oil spills, and you'd probably get a quick catalog of replies."Drunk skippers," most would probably answer."Sloppy procedures," a more thoughtful citizen could reply.
"Greed," another might say, getting closer to the truth.
And I would add another, even more depressing cause: I think bad government causes oil spills.
To be more precise, bad government, inadequate regulation and citizen apathy create the circumstances in which not only is an oil spill more likely to occur, but in which the capacity for response is woefully inadequate.”
It was easy to supply specifics. A state senate dominated by oil industry boosters had repealed landmark tanker safety legislation adopted just a few years before. Alaska’s legislative finance committees had cut the budget of the Department of Environmental Conservation — not to save money (we were as rich as Alberta at the time) but to pull the teeth of the watchdogs. Alaskans stopped paying income taxes and instead got checks from the “Permanent Fund” that invested oil royalties for the state. They were none too eager to offend the source of that largess.
Just as it is unfolding today with BP, every layer of truth uncovered about how that accident came to pass was a flat indictment of the oil industry. They made promises when they wanted something and broke them when it was convenient. People got mad — for a while — and started funding enforcement and tightening regulations again.
But within just a couple of years, oil company PR and campaign contributions had  won back a privileged place for their industry in Alaska. Citizens proved all-to-willing to roll over once again, as long as the checks didn’t bounce.
Within the last few years we’ve had a close-up view of how that happened, a bribery scandal unlike anything before it in Alaska. The state’s political elite were corrupt, pretty much from top to bottom. FBI surveillance cameras finally captured the oil boss in a Juneau hotel room yelling “I own your ass” at a legislator. Money in paper bags changed hands regularly. Sometimes drugs were exchanged.
That was in naive, isolated little Alaska, of course. I imagine BP and its cohorts will be more careful and imaginative in Washington. 
I hold the oil industry responsible for this disaster, but I don’t actually blame it. Those companies do what all companies do in capitalist economies: seek their own self-interest above all else. They won’t do a bit more than the law and the enforcers make them do and they will start cutting corners the moment the spotlight fades.
Now we will find out what today’s U.S. political system is made of. Will leaders and lawmakers have the nerve to police the industry? Will the oil colonies in Louisiana and Mississippi (not to mention Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska) be willing to do their part in changing this sad scenario?
Here’s what I wrote (to so little lasting effect) more than 20 years ago in Alaska: “This is the death of trust. But it can be the rebirth of citizenship.”
This column was originally written for
The Badger newspaper in Leader, Saskatchewan
and is available for reprints with permission from


Posted via email from edge & flow

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