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Those who do not learn from oil spills… August 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Last week, the Senate failed to pass even an anemic oil spill response bill.  The oil industry learned a lesson from this episode, and it’s not the lesson we’d hoped to teach them.

The bill that was pulled contained commonsense measures to prevent oil spills.  Simple ideas like making oil companies fully liable for the damage they cause.  “You break, you buy” is not a tough concept, and the oil industry has zero goodwill with the public right now.  This should have been simple.

Yet for all of BP’s technical incompetence and possibly criminal negligence, they have thus far succeeded in minimizing the regulatory blowback from this terrible, preventable catastrophe.  Their formula is simple:

1)     Lie to downplay the spill size;

2)     Deny media access so that nobody can disprove the lie;

3)     Spend a tiny fraction of profits on lobbying; and, inevitably,

4)     …Repeat

We know that BP has consistently downplayed the size of the spill.  They used dispersants to keep oil underwater and then chose to measure the spill rate solely by the size of the surface oil slick.  That’s willful deception.

Yet because BP withheld video footage and denied reporters access, nobody could authoritatively challenge their claims (except maybe the government, but that’s another story).

And finally, over the last few months, the big five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) have spent $18 million lobbying to kill the oil spill response bill.  Compared to their $21.7 billion in combined profits over the last quarter alone, that is a tiny investment.

And it worked.

Surely this legislative gridlock is influenced by the toxic political climate in Washington, but the industry has taken note of BP’s success.  In fact, we have already seen tactics from this new playbook employed elsewhere.  (Which means, unfortunately, that we have already had more oil spills since Deepwater Horizon…we didn’t pass this oil legislation how?)

In Michigan, there are numerous reports that Enbridge Inc. is denying media access to areas damaged by its recent oil spill.  In China, the amount of oil spilled when a pipeline exploded is suspected of being massively downplayed.  This pattern is not going to stop on its own.

Oily shoreline in Dalian, China, where BP's spill response tactics are already being replicated.

During future oil spills, what incentive does a company have to be honest or transparent about the damage it is causing?  None.

Not only have we failed to hold the oil industry accountable for unacceptable damage and deplorable safety records, we have taught them how to get away with it even when, for a few weeks, the whole country actually cares about the environment.

The oil industry has not learned from its mistakes.  Why should they?  It’s much cheaper to pay for lobbyists.  With limited liability, taxpayers and victims pay for much of the damage oil spills cause.

Case-in-point: despite the looming phase-out of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez, Exxon still hires more of these risky supertankers than the next 10 biggest oil companies combined.

Failing to pass this weak bill will be even worse than having done nothing.  It will let Big Oil know they can bully and buy their way out of any transgression, no matter how heinous.   Those who do not learn from their oil spills are doomed to repeat them.

And right on cue comes news that in Alaska, just thirty miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, BP is gaming the system to loosen restrictions and oversight on a new drilling project…

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