BP: Billionaire Polluter

Less than a week after British Petroleum's
Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico,
killing 11 workers and unleashing what could be the worst industrial
environmental disaster in U.S. history, the company announced more than
$6 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2010, more than doubling
profits from the same period the year before. Oil industry analyst
Antonia Juhasz notes: "BP is one of the most powerful corporations
operating in the United States. Its 2009 revenues of $327 billion are
enough to rank BP as the third-largest corporation in the country. It
spends aggressively to influence U.S. policy and regulatory oversight."
The power and wealth that BP and other oil giants wield are almost
without parallel in the world, and pose a threat to the lives of
workers, to the environment and to our prospects for democracy.

Sixty years ago, BP was called the
Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (AIOC). A popular, progressive, elected Iranian
government had asked the AIOC, a largely British-owned monopoly, to
share more of its profits from Iranian oil with the people of Iran. The
AIOC refused, so Iran nationalized its oil industry. That didn't sit
well with the U.S., so the CIA organized a coup d'etat against
Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. After he was deposed, the AIOC,
renamed British Petroleum, got a large part of its monopoly back, and
the Iranians got the brutal Shah of Iran imposed upon them, planting
the seeds of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the subsequent hostage crisis
and the political turmoil that besets Iran to this day.

In 2000, British Petroleum rebranded
itself as BP, adopting a flowery green-and-yellow logo, and began
besieging the U.S. public with an advertising campaign claiming it was
moving "beyond petroleum." BP's aggressive growth, outrageous profit
and track record of petroleum-related disasters paint a much different
picture, however. In 2005, BP's Texas City refinery exploded, killing
15 people and injuring 170. In 2006, a BP pipeline in Alaska leaked
200,000 gallons of crude oil, causing what the Environmental Protection
Agency calls "the largest spill that ever occurred on the [Alaskan]
North Slope." BP was fined $60 million for the two disasters. Then, in
2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined BP
an additional $87 million for the refinery blast. Secretary of Labor
Hilda Solis said: "BP has allowed hundreds of potential hazards to
continue unabated. ... Workplace safety is more than a slogan. It's the
law." BP responded by formally contesting all of OSHA's charges.

President Barack Obama said of the Gulf of
Mexico oil spill, "Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak; BP
will be paying the bill." Riki Ott is not so sure. She is a marine
toxicologist and former "fisherma'am" from Alaska, and was one of the
first people to respond to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster. Exxon
deployed an army of lawyers to delay and defeat the legal claims of the
people who were physically and/or financially harmed by the Valdez
spill. "What we know is that the industry does everything it can to
limit its liability," she told me.

The (Mobile, Ala.) Press-Register reported
that Alabama Attorney General Troy King told BP to "stop circulating
settlement agreements among coastal Alabamians." Apparently, BP was
requiring owners of fishing boats seeking work mitigating the spill to
waive any and all rights to sue BP in the future. Despite a BP
spokesperson's pledge that the waivers would not be enforced, the news
report stated, "King said late Sunday that he was still concerned that
people would lose their right to sue by accepting settlements from BP
of up to $5,000."

Even if BP doesn't trick victims into signing away the right to sue,
the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, while requiring polluters to pay the actual
hard costs of the cleanup, caps the additional financial liability of a
spill at just $75 million. Given that millions of people will be
impacted by the spill, by the loss of fisheries and tourism, and by the
cascade of impacts on related industries, $75 million is small change.

That is why Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.,
introduced a bill to raise the economic-damages liability cap to $10
billion, calling the bill the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act. Riki Ott
is touring New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, educating people about the
toxic effects of the spill, and helping them prepare for the long fight
ahead to hold BP accountable.

BP will surely continue its dirty
practices, fighting accountability in the courts, in the press and on
the oil-drenched beaches. BP: be prepared.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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