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Drill or Die

On July 8, the Obama administration lost its court appeal to stay an order issued last month by District Judge Martin Feldman lifting the administration’s six-month moratorium on offshore deepwater drilling. The appeal was heard in the Fifth US Circuit Court.

But a funny thing happened only hours before the Fifth US Circuit Court issued its decision against the Obama administration.

“Alliance for Justice,” the non-profit group that, a few months earlier, had launched a campaign to publicize the Supreme Court’s transformation from an independent institution into a “corporate court,” released a white paper titled “Judicial Gusher: the Fifth Circuit’s Ties to Oil (pdf).” The report found that “many US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges have extensive and multi-faceted ties to the oil industry, a factor which will come into play this week as a three-judge panel hears the Obama Administration’s appeal of a lower court decision blocking a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Judicial Gusher” asserts that the three Fifth Circuit judges charged with deciding the most recent motions in a legal battle over the moratorium have either defended energy companies as lawyers or invested in energy companies as judges.

Its publication is only the latest in a series of dramatic events that have unfolded since the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon in April.

The sad saga of American “justice” – Big Oil style
On May 14, when, following the worst, and most relentless oil disaster in US history, the Obama administration announced it would impose a 6-month moratorium on new permits for deep water drilling in order to give a presidential commission time to study safety concerns, its lawyers told US District Judge Martin Feldman that April’s sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast was a “game changer” that exposed the risks of offshore oil exploration.

But, for a group of Louisiana offshore oil service and supply companies, such risks were not enough to justify a halt to deepwater drilling. So, Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc., along with more than a dozen other oil services companies, sued US regulators to lift the ban in a New Orleans federal court, arguing that if oil drilling were not allowed to continue, the state of Louisiana would lose thousands of jobs, and the region would be economically devastated.

That the moratorium imposed only a temporary pause on deepwater drilling (in waters deeper than 500 feet) was of little import to Reagan-appointee, Judge Martin Feldman, who wasted no time in ruling that the Obama administration had failed to justify the need for such “a blanket, generic, indeed punitive, moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling.” The Obama administration responded by immediately requesting that the moratorium be allowed to continue while the issue was being litigated. That request was denied within hours after the Justice Department’s request for a stay was filed -- again by Judge Feldman.

In his opinion, Feldman repeated his criticism of the Obama administration’s moratorium, saying that it was “indeed punitive” because it was too broad, arbitrary and not justified given the impact on thousands of oil industry workers and on local communities.

The administration responded by requesting another stay from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals -- the same court where the initial ruling on the moratorium was appealed.

Subsequent revelations that  Judge Feldman held substantial investments in the oil and gas industries (including stocks in Exxon, Halliburton, KBR and Transocean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig), have done little to sway opponents of the ban; nor were they swayed by a statement released in June through Feldman’s own chambers revealing that the judge instructed his broker to sell his Exxon stocks and a subsidiary as soon as the market opened on June 22 -- one day after the hearing.

Big Oil cashes in on fiscal fear

The UK Guardian and other financial news sources reported this summer that shares in oil services companies including Halliburton, Diamond Offshore, Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and other oil-related industries are in the tank, so it is hardly surprising that Obama’s moratorium would enrage the industry. With tens of thousands of jobs in the balance, it is equally understandable that such a move would strike fear in the hearts of residents from communities whose livelihoods have long been tied to the oil industry.

Thanks in large part to corporate fear mongering specifically designed to exploit the very real anxieties of those who stand to suffer most from massive unemployment in the Gulf, much of the frustration and anger initially directed at BP has been redirected -- at the Obama administration. Political and corporate fear mongering is a tactic that can hardly go wrong when so many jobs are at stake.

Environmentalists may have found it modestly encouraging that Interior Secretary Salazar, when confronted with the oft-repeated remark that a drilling ban would effectively destroy Louisiana’s offshore industries, responded: “The greater irreparable harm would be if there was another blowout, when there is not the oil response capability to even deal with the current Horizon event.”

Yet, at least so far, it seems that Big Oil remains in charge, having successfully managed -- with the help of a complicit mainstream media and the US judicial system -- to frame the national narrative as one of “jobs vs. environment.”

That would seem to answer the “elephant-in-the-room” question, so poignantly posed by one beleaguered blogger: “Why does Louisiana still support offshore drilling, when its fishing industry is getting slammed by the BP spill?”

(The myth of) executive power in a corporate-owned world

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, Obama resolutely called on Congress to roll back billions of dollars in tax breaks for Big Oil. He urged the Senate to waste no time in passing a clean-energy bill in order to end US dependence on fossil fuels.

He even predicted that, despite the issue’s divisive nature (and despite having remained stuck in the Senate for months), he would somehow “find the political support” for legislation that would dramatically alter the way Americans fuel their homes and cars, including placing a price on carbon pollution.

“The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months,” Obama told an audience at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future ... I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can, and I will work with anyone to get this done. And we will get it done.

“Over the last decade,” Obama said, the Minerals Management Agency “has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility -- a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves ... Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors, and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations.”

But in past weeks, Obama seems to have softened his “anti-industry” rhetoric, and his “clean energy future” is looking more and more distant. The sense of urgency for passing legislation that offers more than token financial incentives for genuine renewables (as opposed to nuclear power) has, yet again, all but disappeared.

While Obama has teased his constituents with the concept of eliminating subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industries, even floating the idea in his latest budget proposal, the president’s fiscal loyalty remains with the nuclear power industry, which just received another $9 Billion in new loans for nuclear reactor construction this July.

It would seem that now, with the spill casting Big Oil in the worst possible light, calling for the elimination of oil company subsidies would be a “no brainer.”  Obama needs to reclaim his moral authority, if for no other reason, to redeem himself in the eyes of his constituents.

But politics is all about perception, and if Obama is to survive politically in a corporate political culture, his options, at least in his own mind, are limited. Taking on Big Oil means engaging in a power struggle with one of the most powerful forces in the political universe -- what some have called the “corporate oligopoly.”

If past behavior is any indicator, that is something Obama is unlikely to do in his political lifetime. The president understands all too well that it is the corporate oligopoly who helped put him where he is today -- and it is they who can take him out.

The more things change ...

Energy experts warn that the US will need what amounts to a “Green Industrial Revolution” if we are to begin to mitigate accelerated climate change, and step away from the brink of a great extinction. Yet, it was only last March that President Obama reversed a decades-long moratorium on offshore oil drilling along the East Coast from Delaware to Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

In lifting the ban, Obama took oil industry engineers and geologists at their word when they assured him that new technologies and drilling methods, had rendered deepwater drilling virtually foolproof.

“Today,” wrote environmental journalist John McQuaid, in an article criticizing the Obama administration’s policy reversal, “the notion that offshore drilling is safe seems absurd.”

Absurd perhaps, but the industry has long dominated government agencies at all levels, including Congress and regulatory agencies. And that hasn’t changed with this administration.

Shell and Chevron, according to Chris Kromm of the Institute of Southern Studies, only recently leased new drilling rigs from Transocean, the company whose Deepwater Horizon rig triggered the BP disaster. Kromm quoted an industry publication story about Transocean that said, “Transocean [is] still strong and growing.” He concluded, “Despite the disaster still unfolding in the Gulf, the energy and offshore drilling industries feel the same way about their future.”

And author Robert Scheer wondered in a recent article, “whether the president who bent over backward to pander to this group has learned anything from this costly mess remains to be seen.”

What also remains to be seen is whether Obama will now, as Scheer puts it, “view through a more skeptical lens the judgments and risk assessments of plunderers who treat national resources as little more than profit centers.”

Twisted logic and false choices

In the court of public opinion, continuing to drill is a relatively easy sell, partly because of political and economic inertia and partly because, as with jobs created by military spending, Americans are faced with false choices. Having been blinded by what author Robert Scheer calls, “lavishly funded corporate PR” to the real costs of such reckless corporate behavior, it is understandable that those struggling to survive would buy into the spin, but, as Scheer says, “it is inexcusable when the political elite in Washington that know better goes along with such chicanery.”

But “ordinary Americans” also bear some responsibility for the predicament in which we find ourselves. The current “drill or die” campaign would not be nearly as effective if American consumers were more willing to challenge heretofore unchallenged cultural assumptions. Foremost among them -- our own habits of consumption.

Surviving the 21st century will require us to think in terms of less, not more. We will need to accept that, in contrast to all we have been taught, growth does not necessarily equal good.

Embracing such an attitude will require Americans to view corporate PR tactics with a far more critical eye than in the past. Frenzied marketing campaigns, such as the one currently being employed by  mega-consumer electronics company Apple, to sell its absurdly over-hyped (and “app-heavy”) i-Phone 4, need to be seen for what they are. Whether “creating demand” in a tanking economy or “manufacturing consent,” by saturating the mainstream media, even “embedding” their advertisements into (what today passes as) “news segments,” corporate marketers have succeeded in convincing us that we need their products.

US moratorium not enough

Until Americans are more willing to accept that we will not “save ourselves” by killing the planet on which we depend for survival, there will be no solution to the crisis in which we now find ourselves.

Yet, as author Lisa Margoneli argued recently in an interview with PBS, it is “a morally false choice” to halt drilling in the US, only to send Big Polluters offshore, where environmental regulations are lax or, in some cases, non-existent. It is a very “inconvenient truth” that to  ban oil drilling in the US, while looking the other way as the likes of Shell in Nigeria, Texaco in Ecuador or Occidental in Colombia continue to plunder the poorest countries on the planet, epitomizes the myopic attitude and “NIMBYism” held by most US consumers.

If we are to successfully challenge Big Oil’s “right to pollute,” Americans will need to stand in solidarity, arm in arm with the indigenous activists who are now, and have long been, standing up to these corporate behemoths in their own homelands. We will need to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered most at the hands of Big Oil, to challenge these companies not only in the Gulf, but everywhere else they are abusing human rights and wreaking their destruction.

Humanity is at the precipice. We have entered an era unlike any other in global history. What it brings will depend on us.

Sandy LeonVest

Sandy LeonVest is a radio and print journalist and the editor of SolarTimes (, a publication that looks at energy from a progressive and humanitarian perspective. SolarTimes is distributed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Sandy is the host of “Political Analysis,” a weekly program aired on the Progressive Radio Network every Tuesday at 6pm EST/3pm PST.

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