Wednesday, July 14, 2010

US: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Oil Spill Shows Capitalists Unfit to Rule


During the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74, war criminal Henry Kissinger is reputed to have quipped, "Oil is too important to be left to the control of the Arabs". We have a different perspective: Oil is too dangerous to be left to the control of the capitalists!

As we go to press in late June 2010, the oil spill (read: gush) into the Gulf of Mexico from British Petroleum‘s exploded oil rig Deepwater Horizon has already become the worst oil spill disaster in world history, far exceeding the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and even the 1979 Ixtoc disaster off the coast of Mexico – and there is no end in sight.

Since April 20, when the actions of BP and its contractors set off the initial explosion that sank the oil rig – the deepest offshore oil drilling operation in the U.S., if not in the world –  tens if not hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil have gushed out each day into the Gulf of Mexico, and onto the coastlines of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. In Florida, the oil has reached the pristine white beaches, many of the tourists are gone, and many thousands have lost their jobs. The same coastal areas of the Gulf that were pounded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and left to rot by the Bush administration, have been hit hardest by the oil spill, and have been left to rot by Obama, the Democratic 'environmental' President.

Time has come and gone for stopping the gusher and cleaning the spill, but the government has merely pretended to put Obama's boot on BP's throat, all the while canalizing and damming up the righteous fury of the Gulf Coast residents with all the power of the Washington spin machine. Over and over, the true picture has been suppressed by BP spokespersons, government experts, the police, and compliant editors and publishers in the mainstream press. The Coast Guard has put force behind the spin, raising false hope in each of the parade of fixes, killing priceless time and guardingthe prerogatives and property of BP until two relief wells come to the rescue (maybe) in August. A million gallons of crude oil are being burned off on the surface daily, yet we see no mention of any possible effects on public health in the region, or on climate change, and neither OSHA nor the EPA has attempted to intervene.

The vast area of ocean covered by the oil spill approaches 4000 square miles, the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.[1] In combination, the crude oil from the well plus the toxic chemical dispersants used by BP now pose a major public health danger to the coastal populations of the Gulf – as with Hurricane Katrina. At the same time, oil from the BP spill has begun to enter the ocean currents of the Gulf Stream. This could carry dangerous pollutants along the coast of Florida and the East Coast towards Europe and the rest of the world – where the toxic plumes could destroy entire fish populations around the globe. Hurricane season has already started, and severe storms pose a threat of even greater dispersal of the toxins and carcinogens now floating in the Gulf in vast quantities.

Almost all the public statements made by BP and the Obama administration about the spill have been nothing but an endless barrage of lies. BP and the government have done the bare minimum to stop the spill and clean it up, in order to minimize the damage to BP's profits. Initially, official estimates by both BP and the U.S. government put the figure for the size of the spill at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day (at 42 gallons to the barrel).

However, this proved to be at least five times less than the measurements made by university scientists and environmental groups, who severely criticized BP's mathematical analysis and arrived at figures that put the size of the blowout at a minimum of 70,000 barrels per day. And the numbers just keep on rising. After BP was forced to provide a high quality video of the spill, independent scientists estimated that it was releasing at least 25,000 barrels per day – and possibly as much as 100,000 barrels per day![2]

In stark contrast to the lies by BP CEO Tony Hayward in May 2010 that the impact of the spill would be "very, very modest", Deepwater Horizon is one of the worst oil spills in history. It  amounts to nothing less than a monstrous crime against nature by capitalism, specifically U.S. and British imperialism. The only way humanity can prevent such hellish environmental catastrophes in the future is for the working class in the U.S. and around the globe to rise up and get rid of capitalism, once and for all, through the socialist revolution. The earth's ecosphere will not survive more than a few decades unless the working class takes power and establishes socialism on a worldwide scale.

The explosion and fire that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers. One of the last workers to escape the explosion was Mike Williams, a technician working for Transocean, the company that leased the oil rig to British Petroleum. In a television interview broadcast in May 2010, Williams exposed the central role played by BP executives in creating the conditions that led to the massive blowout of crude oil from the well.

Immediately before the spill, BP executives arrived at the rig to oversee the completion of drilling by Transocean and the plugging of the well by Transocean‘s contractor, Halliburton. At a management safety meeting held on the rig, Transocean managers proposed to insert three concrete plugs into the well and keep down the massive pressure by using heavy drilling fluid called mud. According to Williams, the BP manager responded, "Well, my process is different, and I think we‘re going to do it this way".[3] [4] What BP management wanted was to begin removing the mud before the last plug was set, and so speed up the operation to save money. Of course BP got their way, and what resulted was a massive blast of methane gas that set off the entire disaster.

From the very beginning, BP's attempts at closing off the gushing oil well have been halfhearted at best, and token at worst. Much like any other capitalist corporation, every single step BP has taken since April 20th has been motivated by its bottom line, the protection of its sacred super-profits ($6 billion in the first quarter of 2010). This included its decision to put off a costly 'top kill' operation to close off the oil well until well over a month after the spill – only to find that it did not work after all. In this regard, BP is not especially greedy, anti-environmental or evil – especially in comparison to American corporations! BP is simply obeying the laws of capitalism's 'free' market in extracting (and often spilling) oil solely for the pursuit for profit – and not to satisfy real human or environmental needs.

Oil slicks from the BP spill have already reached the Gulf wetlands and beaches, killing thousands of birds, fish, marine mammals, and oyster beds, as well as plant life. Still, BP continues to deny the existence of oil plumes. Plumes are huge curtains of oil that remain deep in the ocean and may note even be detectable from its surface. For example, just one plume has been measured at 3 miles across and 1,500 feet thick, at a depth of 3,600 feet below the surface of the ocean.[5] Plumes like these have the potential to kill hundreds of dolphins and whales, and millions of fish and other marine organisms. If this situation continues for another month or two, huge sections of the Gulf of Mexico could well become a dead zone.[6] This could bring dire consequences for the ecology, the fishing industry, and tourism, not only in the U.S. states that border on the Gulf, but also in portions of the Caribbean.

Thousands of Gulf Coast fishermen and shrimpers who were made jobless by the BP spill have volunteered to become involved in the oil cleanup. But BP has not been willing to hire more than a small number of them – and only on condition that they first renounce their right to sue the company. These fishermen are likely to lose their livelihoods for many years, and BP offers them $5000 each! This barely pays the interest on their insurance costs. Most of them have received nothing as of yet. BP also refused to supply the fishermen with protective equipment, and now many of them have become sick from exposure to the crude oil and dispersants. To add insult to injury, BP threatened to fire workers in clean-up crews who turned up for work wearing protective respirators. EPA tests have shown that the combined effect of crude oil and dispersants, in the form of small airborne particles, is even more toxic than they are separately.[7] This may also explain why five offshore rigs were shut down soon after the spill when rig workers fell ill.

While a lot of attention has been focused on the role of the BP corporation and its executives, the liberal and environmental left in the U.S. has tried to downplay or ignore the close ties between BP, and the oil industry generally, and the Obama administration. Obama was the recipient of huge financial contributions from BP-controlled PACs and PB employees during the 2008 election.[8] BP continues even now to expend millions of dollars to lobby top Democrats in Washington, including Democrats close to Obama himself.

During the first two weeks of the BP spill, many even in the mainstream media commented on how Obama and BP seemed to be speaking with one voice. On April 2, 2010, just weeks before the spill, Obama stated that "I don't agree with the notion that we shouldn't do any [offshore drilling]. It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced"[9] These remarks were made in response to a question about Obama's speech declaring hisintention to open up large areas of the U.S. coastline to offshore drilling.[10]

The administration continued to stand by this decision for two weeks after the rig exploded, and asserted that the disaster would in no way lessen its support for the lifting of a moratorium on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs maintained to reporters a few days after the rig explosion, "In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last. We need the increased production. The President still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely and without any harm to the environment."[11] [12]

Even as late as mid-June, Obama's Interior Secretary stated that it was his hope that the moratorium prohibiting offshore drilling would lass less than six months! Obama continued to defend BP even in the face of scandals involving the Minerals Management Service, the department of the federal government responsible for regulating offshore drilling and other industrial activity of the oil industry in the U.S. While issuing 'safety alerts' to BP and other oil companies to activate back-up switches on oil rigs (an option of last resort to prevent crude oil blowouts), the MMS did nothing to enforce its regulations. The director of MMS stepped down after the spill when it was revealed that MMS staff had accepted 'gifts' from oil companies, such as tickets to sports events, lunches, and even sex parties with industry-hired prostitutes.

Opinion polls published in the first month after the BP spill showed that the vast majority of those surveyed were critical and even angry at the Obama administration's response to the disaster – almost to the same degree as they were at BP. Even fellow Democrat James Carville of Louisiana pleaded with Obama a month after the spill, "Man, you got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving," he said. "We‘re about to die down here."[13] While the pressure of public opinion caused Obama to shift his position and extend the moratorium on new offshore drilling permits – to a token six months – he has adamantly refused to budge on his insistence that BP remain in charge of shutting down and cleaning up the spill.

Like his Republican predecessor, Obama and his administration are 100% committed to supporting the industrial production of the oil companies, including offshore drilling, regardless of the destructive results to the environment. If supporting the oil industry was not on Obama's agenda, why would his administration have spent billions, if not trillions, of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The truth is that U.S., European, and now Chinese imperialism are all absolutely dependent on oil to fuel their economic exploitation of the planet and the working class around the world.

This is even more true today, because the world is experiencing the worst capitalist economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Oil has become the lifeblood of modern day imperialism, and it is precisely for this reason that the Middle East and the ex-Soviet republics in central Asia are such critical areas of the world to imperialism. At the same time, the oi lcompanies and other powerful multinational corporations, which are at the heart of the U.S. capitalist economy, depend for their very existence on the continuation of highly dangerous processes and unchecked pollution. The oil and petrochemical industries are one of the main sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and global warming.

The capitalists who own the means of energy production (such as offshore oil rigs, refineries, coal mines, and the like) are incapable of defending the environment and protecting humanity from the effects of environmental damage or climate change. This is because of capitalism's commitment to production for the sake of profit. In the market, need is measured not in terms of hunger, sickness or pollution, but in terms of profit. The capitalists of BP and other the oil companies have no reason whatsoever to avoid the pollution of the environment if this impedes the production of their profit. It is the job of Obama and the politicians of the twin ruling class parties, the Democrats and Republicans, to protect the interests of the oil companies and make sure that nothing does indeed impede their production of profits.

The recent observations by environmental scientists that oil from the spill has begun to enter the Gulf Stream, and that the BP oil gush has released huge amounts of methane into the Ocean, underlines the urgency of this environmental catastrophe. Modern day imperialism has created the potential to destroy the whole global environment. Already the ice covering the Arctic Ocean has begun to disappear as a result of global warming. If the frozen methane that lies beneath the Arctic Ocean begins to thaw, it will release a greenhouse gas (methane-air mixture) that is 26 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming effect. In other words, what the catastrophic oil spill highlights is the urgency of the environmental crisis created by global capitalism.

The widespread destruction of fish populations by oil pollution carried by the Gulf Stream, and the other threats posed by climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, means that now more than ever, our planet is facing a dire environmental emergency. To avoid the further destruction of this planet, all offshore drilling must stop now.

Workers at home and abroad must combine their struggle against the economic crisis of the capitalist system with environmental consciousness. The working class must fight for workers' control of the oil industry and of all industries that emit greenhouse gases. Workers must control heavy industry so we can implement the emergency measures needed to transform our current industrial technologies into green, environmentally friendly, sustainable technologies.

What this means today, in the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, is that the oil and energy industries must be nationalized under workers‘ control, with no compensation to the bosses. To pay for the clean-up operations, we must demand hundreds of billions of dollars from the oil and energy companies who are responsible for the destruction of the environment in the first place. At present, despite all their promises, Obama and BP have hired ridiculously small crews of workers to clean up the vast areas of contamination of wetland, beaches, and open ocean in the Gulf of Mexico.

We can already see that the serious cleanup objectively called for would require an international emergency effort on the scale of that undertaken during the World Wars. We demand that as part of an environmental public works program, millions of the able-bodied unemployed be hired at union wages and benefits, trained, housed, fed, and equipped with proper protective equipment, and deployed to scour the waters, the wetlands, the islands, and the beaches; to clean and rehabilitate injured wildlife; and to dispose of the waste in an environmentally sensitive manner.

The clean-up must be placed entirely under workers' control and carried out by workers' organizations in conjunction with independent scientists and engineers. Much more could be done through the creative use of existing technology and resources. For example, the trucks used to remove waste from portable toilets can be used to clean up oil spills by sucking oil into their holding tanks. The armed forces, with all their technology and equipment, can be put to much better use in cleaning up the oil spill than in killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The operations aimed at plugging the well must be also be placed under the control of the oil and energy workers. Independent scientists from the oil industry and the government should coordinate the efforts, and all BP personnel must be subordinated to these independent scientists, who in turn must be accountable and under the control of oil and energy workers.

Finally, an investigation of this monstrous crime against nature and humanity must be carried out by committees of workers in the oil industry, working with scientists and engineers accountable to the working class. We call on the International Trade Union Conference, the AFL-CIO, and the United Steelworkers (now home to the former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union) to form an independent, international workers' commission of inquiry into this totally preventable disaster. We would want them to interview everyone who ever worked on this project, and every living victim of the explosion and its results, and to gather information not only on the immediate environmental and economic effects of the disaster, but also on the long term health effects to cleanup workers and Gulf residents, and other indirect consequences.

We call for a Workers' Militia to accompany them in their  investigation, so that they will suffer no interference, obstruction, or obfuscation by BP or any government body. The Workers' Commission of Inquiry should report to an international workers' tribunal, primarily made up of workers from the Gulf Coast states, as well as affected workers in other areas such as Mexico and the Caribbean, but also representing local fishermen and the unemployed. A workers' tribunal would establish culpability and bring charges, but also publish findings and assess true costs – including losses to the pension funds that invested in BP, representing the retirement dreams of many millions of workers.

In the end, only workers' control of the means of production can prevent the recurrence of such environmental catastrophes in the future. The entire energy industry, including the oil corporations and the Wall Street investors and banks that finance them, must be expropriated without compensation – that is, nationalized under workers control – and defended by a workers' government. In reality, this goal can only be achieved if the working class in the U.S. and around the globe rise up, and get rid of capitalism once and for all through the socialist revolution.
  • Hands off the workers helping in the clean up; no gag orders on participants; no interference with media access to BP personnel, cleanup workers, and Gulf area residents and locations!
  • Immediate, full replacement of wages and benefits for all those who lose work as a result of the disaster, directly or indirectly! Billions of dollars to fund retraining and create millions of jobs in remediation!
  • Provide appropriate protective equipment for all cleanup personnel. Provide health care for all, especially for cleanup workers and those affected by the spill. Provide multilingual health warnings at all affected beaches and fishing areas.
  • No cap on BP’s obligation to pay for every penny of the cleanup cost and all damages to Gulf Coast workers, fishermen, and their families. Prosecute all BP executives and regulators whose decisions contributed to this disaster!

Reprinted with permission from International Trotskyist, vol 1 no 2 Summer 2010.
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