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Putting blame in the right place: BP

Just a thought

June 16, 2010
By now, most of us have seen the pictures of oil-covered birds, the dead turtles and the ruined marshes and beaches along the southern coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and, now, Florida. For those of us who have been there on vacations, honeymoons or fishing trips, the memories of the way it used to be have been replaced by the realization that it may never be the same again.

The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig didn't seem so ominous to most of us here in Southern Indiana at first; it seemed so far away. It wasn't like it happened in New Salisbury or English or New Amsterdam. But as the pictures now remind us, day after day, of the size of the disaster and the damage it has, and will, cause, the distance from Indiana is being reduced with the passing of every day and every news story. Whether we like it or not, the spill will, in the long run, affect all of us.

But what we now hear about most is how President Barack Obama has handled the situation. How did, what many are now saying is one of the biggest catastrophes in our history, become so political? Obama didn't drill the well — BP did. Obama didn't own the rig that exploded — Transocean did. Obama didn't fail to cap the well in a safe manner as required — Halliburton did. And there are those who claim that the government didn't respond quickly enough, even though the Coast Guard had vessels en route to the scene within minutes of the explosion and government officials were evaluating the situation just hours later.

But if those who are blaming Obama know so much about oil spills, why aren't they sharing that information? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are both oil men, so where are their ideas about stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf? We already know the answer to that question — they don't have a clue — and the sad part is, no one else does either. So, why should the president have more knowledge on plugging this hole than the oil companies who are drilling them all over this planet? You'd think that if they can drill them, they can stop them — but they obviously can't — even after we've had several oil spills in the past. They either haven't learned from them, or, like Texaco and Exxon Mobil, apparently just don't care.

Texaco, an American company who later merged with Chevron, caused what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever. And many of us don't even know about it.

Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for more than 30 years in Ecuador's northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Columbia. According to an article by Bob Herbert, Texaco "barreled into this delicate ancient landscape in the early 1960s with all the subtlety and grace of an invading army." And when they pulled out in 1992, they left behind widespread toxic contamination that "devastated the livelihoods and traditions of the local people and took a severe toll on their physical well-being."

According to Herbert, Texaco deliberately dumped many billions of gallons of waste byproduct from oil drilling directly into the rivers and streams of the rain forest, covering an area the size of Rhode Island. They gouged more that 900 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor which, to this day, leach toxic waste into soils and groundwater. Texaco burned hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and creating "black rain" which inundated the area during tropical rains.

Herbert says, and I agree, that the quest for oil is, by its nature, extremely destructive. And the giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature's wonders like a sewer. But the profits are so vast and corrupting that governments refuse to impose the kinds of rigid oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.

And now, the people and families along the Gulf Coast who depend on the waterways of the Southern states for their living and way of life, are in trouble, just like the people of the rain forest in Ecuador. And, as Herbert pointed out, the oil companies don't care. Shell Oil is "chomping at the bit" to drill in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of Alaska, which is in an area where it would be almost impossible to deal with a sizable oil spill, just like the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

In that case, Exxon was proven at fault. Thousands of animals died almost immediately, including almost 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 Orca whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs. The effects of that enormous spill are still being felt in that region. Eleven million gallons of crude oil went into the sea there, and Exxon denies any concern. The spill covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean. And Exxon has been in court for the last 20 years, fighting any fines and settlements associated with the spill they caused. They footed the bill for some of the cleanup, but most of that was passed on to their insurance companies. Now, we know that the Exxon Valdez hit the reef that morning mainly because the captain was passed out drunk in his quarters and Exxon refused to repair a broken Raycus radar unit (because it was too expensive) that would have warned the ship's officers of the dangerous reef in its path.

It's not like we, and the oil companies, haven't had to deal with oil spills before. In other countries, there have been numerous major oil spills, including Singapore, Nigeria, Australia, South Korea, Mexico, Lebanon, Spain, Yeman, France, Wales, Scotland, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Angola, Italy, Nova Scotia, South Africa, Iran, Greece and Turkey. And the United States has had plenty of spills. In February 1990, there was a spill in Bolsa Chica Beach, Calif. That same year, in May, there was another one in the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Bay, Texas. And during the presidency of George W. Bush, there were spills in Buzzards Bay, Mass.; the Delaware River in New Jersey; Chalmette, La.; Unalaska Island in Alaska; North Slope, Alaska; Lake Charles, La.; San Francisco; New Orleans; and Port Arthur, Texas. All of those during years when regulation and oversight were diminished to the point that oil companies could, for the most part, do whatever they pleased — which brought us to where we are now with one of worse oil spills in history.

The oil companies were able to figure out how to drill in water a mile deep, but had no plan for, and still can't figure out, how to control a spill at that depth other than an emergency shut-off valve that they didn't even bother to maintain. The CEO of BP admitted that "we just don't have a toolbox" for a deepwater spill. But they went ahead and drilled anyway.

I've read the claim that it's not BP's fault, it's ours, because we use so much oil. I disagree. Our need for oil should never justify shoddy drilling practices and environmental destruction in order for any company to increase profits or reduce expenses. And that's exactly what happened.

Do we need to conserve? Absolutely. But that probably won't happen. As long as there's plenty of oil, we'll continue to waste it. And the more we use and waste, the more risks oil companies will take to supply our addiction.

But, just looking at the pictures of the birds, animals, fish and beaches along the Gulf Coast makes it clear that those risks come at a price that can't be figured in dollars.

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