The oil corporation BP likes to brand itself as “beyond petroleum”. Beyond the Pale might be more appropriate after the latest of a series of disasters which the company has to take responsibility for.
Four hundred species of sea life, from turtles to shrimp and octopus, plus miles of coastline, ocean and wetland, hundreds of homes, beaches and livelihoods are threatened by a massive oil slick heading towards the Louisiana coast.
A week on from the explosion at the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed eleven workers and fractured underground pipes, the oil is gushing at a rate of 42,000 gallons a day. It could prove to the be the worst oil leak since 1969.
It is only 20 miles from the Mississippi Delta, an area that contains 40 per cent of all the wetlands in the United States. It covers an area of 2,138 square miles. It will arrive sometime on Friday, or sooner, it is said.
Attempts to halt the flow which is 5,000 feet down have failed, and so oil is now being coralled behind floating barriers and set on fire. It could take weeks to find a way of blocking the pipe.
A federal investigation is being launched into this latest disaster involving BP. In 2005, 15 people were killed at a BP oil and gas plant in Texas, and in 2006, BP was responsible for the biggest-ever oil leak in Alaska, damaging wildlife and the fragile eco-system of Prudhoe Bay.
In spite of that, BP was one of the corporations who lobbied successfully against new, fairly modest proposals for safety regulation of off-shore drilling. In September 2009, vice president for Gulf of Mexico production Richard Morrison, wrote: "We are not supportive of the extensive, prescriptive regulations.” He claimed that voluntary codes of practice "have been and continue to be very successful”.
And so it was with this same hopeless system of self-regulation in force that the Obama administration recently issued licences for extensive new oil exploration and pumping in areas formerly off limits for a whole range of safety and environmental reasons, including in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every time a disaster like this takes place, hands are wrung, crocodile tears shed – but then it’s back to business as usual. Because such events are not aberrations – they are the normal working of the profit-driven oil industry which has as its priority to get the stuff out of the ground as quickly as possible, whatever the effects.
The Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea in 1988 remains the biggest ever loss of life in the oil industry, when 167 people died when the rig caught fire. The recommendations of the Cullen Enquiry that followed have never been fully implemented.
As the oil runs out, what is left becomes harder to get at and the pressure for profit forces operators to keep costs low and put safety a long way second. Governments shy away from introducing tough regulations because they live in fear of the global corporations, especially the energy giants like BP.
The only way to resolve this issue is to recognise that the products of the earth cannot be treated as a free-ride for carpet-bagging capitalists and must be taken into common ownership. The whole decision-making process about what is extracted, what methods are used and for what purpose has to come under social control.