Pandora’s Box in the Gulf: Does Hope Remain?

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Common Dreams

Pandora’s Box in the Gulf: Does Hope Remain?

"From the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort," Obama said. "BP is operating at our direction."  (White House press conference, May 26, 2010)

Americans, especially those unfortunate enough to reside along the Gulf coast, are beginning to get a glimpse of what life is like in an occupied country.  The occupying power, in this case, is British Petroleum, a foreign corporation that has committed grievous crimes yet is allowed to continue to lord over us, despoiling our land and sea, poisoning our people even while denying their constitutional rights.   

We're now three months into the BP blowout and while our president has managed to extract a relatively paltry concession from the oil giant, the physical and economic damage, and the violations of US law and the US Constitution mount by the day. 

A leader with backbone would have asserted immediate control over the disaster inflicted on the Gulf region and dictated terms to BP.  He would have reminded BP and the nation that this was just the latest in a series of major accidents in this company's American operations.  He would have placed the company in receivership and under public authority.  BP's efforts would have been supervised by appropriate departments of the US government along with the immediate opening of an investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI. 

Despite claiming that he is "in charge", Obama dithers, leaving BP to call the shots in the Gulf, even hiring private security to deny citizens access to public land and open seas. 

Why has BP been allowed to direct this effort, even while their incompetence and illegal behavior become more evident by the day?  It is because they are actually more powerful that the US government.  As Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch put it this week in an interview on Pacifica, the oil companies "run the show", regardless of which party is theoretically in power.   

We know, for example, that during the Clinton administration, deepwater drilling was encouraged by giving oil companies a huge break on payment of royalties to the government.  Under the leadership of MMS Regional Director in the Gulf region, Chris C. Oynes, and the strong urging of former Colorado senator and current Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, deepwater drilling boomed. 

And so did the Deepwater Horizon.  It boomed and with it went the lives of eleven men and more than 200 million gallons of crude so far.  (By comparison, the Exxon Valdez disgorged 11 million gallons.)  The disgorgement of all this oil has only been made worse by the application of the dispersant Corexit 9500, a chemical reported to be four times more toxic than oil but that has never been tested by the EPA and is illegal in most countries.  The EPA instructed BP to stop using Corexit when they had only discharged 250,000 gallons; by now BP has used nearly two million gallons, probably in an effort to minimize fines that will be levied per gallon of oil lost in the Gulf.  So who's really in charge? 

There are many more crucial questions regarding this worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States:   

1.  Why was BP allowed to drill in this location?  Both the MMS and BP geologists cautioned against drilling in the location of the Deepwater Horizon due to evidence of a highly volatile methane bubble beneath the seabed.  They warned that if this bubble was disturbed and exploded, it could cause a 200 foot tsunami that would virtually wipe out six Gulf states!  In spite of all this, MMS waived environmental impact studies for the rig and well. 

2. Why aren't all oil companies exploiting the land and seas of the United States, required to drill relief wells and to have equipment at the ready to deal with accidents?   

3.  Why aren't the perpetrators of this disaster being charged for negligence, manslaughter, or worse?  Whistleblowers pointed out before the explosion that the last several hundred feet of the well borehole lacked protective cement casing, a dangerous situation that increased the chances for an explosive event to occur.  Just five hours before the rig went up in flames, an expert who'd worked with the US Army extinguishing oil fires in Iraq was flown to the rig for consultation.  He informed BP that if they continued to pump saltwater into the hole it would blow.  He then demanded immediate evacuation for himself and his men.  The Transocean Corporation, whose blowout preventer failed to operate on April 20, advised BP to stop drilling after receiving negative pressure test results.  Despite these warnings BP did nothing, allowing eleven men to die, and inflicting incalculable damage on the lives of Gulf coast residents, the environment and economy that will take decades, if not centuries to recover.   

4.  Is it just coincidence that BP CEO Tony Hayward unloaded a third of his personal holdings in BP just a month before the blowout?  Did Hayward know that the Deepwater Horizon well was a disaster waiting to happen and figure he would at least save a few million pounds if the worst happened? 

5.  Did someone tip off Goldman Sachs?  The brokerage firm that's faced scrutiny from regulators in the past year over the shorting of mortgage related securities seems to have had very good timing when it came to dumping BP stock.  According to regulatory filings, Goldman sold 4,680, 822 shares of BP, 44% of its holdings, in the first quarter of 2010.  Goldman's sales were the largest of any firm during that time and saved the company approximately $96 million.   

6.  Why did Halliburton Corporation buy the world's largest oil disaster service company, Boots & Coots, just two weeks before the Deepwater Horizon exploded? 

7.  Who advised Vanguard Corporation, the investment firm in which Michelle and Barack Obama's personal wealth is held, sell off 1.5 million shares of BP stock in the weeks before the disaster?  Another coincidence? 

8.  Why was the Coast Guard allowed to create a 65 foot "safety zone" around spill sites, denying media access?  While the Coast Guard says that this rule was urged upon them by local government officials, none have come forth to corroborate this claim.  To this day, the public is being denied full disclosure of the enormity of the losses while rumors of toxic rain, methane explosions, a "bleeding" seabed, and the possibility of mass evacuations ricochet around the net. 

9.  Cleanup crews have been denied the right to wear protective gear!  This is incredible!  Under what authority does BP tell people that if they try to protect themselves from the toxic oil, gases, and dispersants, they will be fired?  Already, thousands have been made ill just so that BP can minimize potential liability.  Thousands of workers who cleaned up after the Exxon Valdez have either died or become chronically ill from exposure to chemicals and dispersants that are absorbed through the skin and cause blood and kidney damage resulting in headaches, respiratory problems and even death.  These same chemicals are being used at the BP spill sites. 

As we write this, BP has placed a "stacking cap" atop the well in a procedure that professor and marine conservationist Rick Steiner called "either a smart idea or a spectacular mistake."  (The "spectacular mistake" would be a blowout between the fractured seabed and the oil reservoir.)  Based on BP's performance so far, and in many previous events in which public safety has been subordinated to profit, we are cautious. Even if BP does manage to close down the enormous faucet a mile beneath the ocean's surface, there will remain massive damage with dire consequences extending far into the future. 

According to Greek mythology, when Pandora defied Zeus and opened that box, all manner of evil escaped.  By the time she had closed it, all that was left was Hope. 

Bill Clinton was "the man from Hope".  The poster of Barack Obama with the single word "Hope" beneath his face became the iconic image of the 2008 presidential campaign.  But does hope remain for the people, the economy and the environment of the Gulf coast?  Does hope remain for the United States in the face of this epic catastrophe that has become a metaphor for the self-destructive hubris of industrial society?  

Obama came to office with a window of opportunity.  Americans were justifiably alarmed by the crash of the financial sector and the loss of their homes and jobs.  Had he addressed these issues, rather than getting into a year long struggle that resulted in a "health reform" package that no one much liked, perhaps his job approval ratings wouldn't be sliding toward 40%.  The BP disaster has again spotlighted the president's tendency to follow the dictates of big business.   

Obama's margin of error is now razor thin. Unless we can see some change, time will soon run out on hope.

Lewis Seiler

Lewis Seiler is president of Voice of the Environment.

Dan Hamburg

Dan Hamburg, a former US congressman from California, is executive director of Voice of the Environment..

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