On 20 April a massive explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused the deaths of 11 workers and precipitated one of the most catastrophic oil spills in history. In this Socialist Review article I argue that this disaster is a result of the rapacious plundering of the environment by companies like BP.
British Petroleum chief executive John Browne surprised many environmentalists in 1995 when he withdrew BP from the Global Climate Coalition. This was a business grouping dedicated to undermining the science of climate change and the Kyoto treaty. Lord Browne, as he is now, raised more eyebrows with his subsequent $200 million rebranding of the corporation, introducing a green logo and renaming the multinational “Beyond Petroleum”. BP also went to some lengths to cultivate a series of partnerships with “moderate” environmental groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation.
But, 15 years on, the Deepwater Horizon disaster on 20 April showed that the ugly face of BP’s business had not changed. Browne’s company became responsible for the deaths of 11 workers and, according to BP documents, up to 16 million litres of oil gushing daily into the Gulf of Mexico. This dwarfs the 200 million litres Exxon Valdez spilled in total in Alaska in 1989.
As the demand for oil has risen and new oil reserves have become harder to secure, the barrel price has resembled a rollercoaster ride. The all-time record high of $147.50 on 11 June 2008 was followed by a massive drop only a couple of days later. So it is no surprise that Barack Obama, in a campaign speech in February 2008, said, “The Achilles heel of the most powerful country on earth is the oil we cannot live without… America’s dependence on oil is a major threat to our national security.”
The US holds only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves, yet it consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil production. Every hour the US spends $18 million on foreign oil. This means that the US is now forced to exploit its domestic oil reserves, whatever the cost. On the one hand, this means that offshore drilling rigs like BP’s Deepwater Horizon had to drill to ever greater depths, making the jobs of workers more risky and environmental catastrophes more likely. On the other hand, it means the US needs to secure new, unconventional oil reserves.
Canada currently provides some 17 percent of its neighbour’s oil imports. The extraction and production of oil sands in Alberta exemplifies capitalism’s endless need to create new markets and make higher profits. This method wastes so much energy that there are plans for a nuclear power station to be built to provide cheap energy for these operations. Like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this is just a running cost of doing business.
As the world runs out of easily accessible oil reserves, international oil companies such as BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and ConocoPhillips – once classified as “supermajors” due to their dominance of the market – have found themselves sidelined by national oil companies which control the rights over the largest oil reserves.
More than three quarters of all oil reserves are now controlled by state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Gazprom (Russia), the National Iranian Oil Company and Petroleums of Venezuela.
BP chair Carl-Henric Svanberg told the Financial Times in May, “The US is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the US, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways.” This highlights the fact that capitalist countries are not only in the tight grip of the banks, but also of the oil and gas industry.
Despite corporate rebranding, BP’s alternative energy business has been subsumed into the category “other businesses and corporate”, illustrating what little interest the company has in developing alternatives to fossil fuels such as wind or solar energy. BP’s alternative energy section ran at a loss of $328 million, showing that the free market is not interested in developing these technologies. Contrast that with BP’s overall profits in gas and oil of the first quarter of 2010, which skyrocketed by 135 percent. These profits were made on the backs of the 97,000 workers it employs and the environment it destroys.
On the very day the explosion happened, a group of BP executives paid a short visit to Deepwater Horizon to celebrate its safety record. At the same time hundreds of workers below were forced to transform the rig from an exploration well, which drills purely for exploratory purposes in a new area, into a production well, which drills primarily for the production of oil or gas.
According to interviews, the workers set and then tested a cement seal at the bottom of the well. They reduced the pressure in the drill column and attempted to set a second seal below the sea floor. A chemical reaction caused by the cement as it set created heat and a gas bubble which destroyed the seal.
Deep beneath the seafloor, methane is in a slushy, crystalline form. Deep-sea oil drillers often encounter pockets of methane crystals as they dig into the earth.
University of California engineering professor Robert Bea serves on a panel on oil pipeline safety for the National Academy of Engineering and worked for BP as a risk assessment consultant during the 1990s. According to him, the bubble rose up the drill column from the high-pressure environs of the deep to the less pressurised shallows. “A small bubble becomes a really big bubble,” he said. “So the expanding bubble becomes like a cannon shooting the gas into your face. What we had learned when I worked as a drill rig labourer was swoosh, boom, run. The swoosh is the gas, boom is the explosion and run is what you better be doing.”
The explosion killed nine rig workers and two engineers. The rest of the workforce were evacuated, with heavy injuries and stress disorders, having seen their friends and fellow workers burned alive. The BP executives were slightly injured.
Before the surviving rig workers were allowed to see their families, or even call them to say that they were safe, they were taken to a secluded hotel and questioned by company consultants and investigators. They were forced to sign forms about what they had seen and whether they had been injured.
The form read, “I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation and have no first hand or personal knowledge regarding the incident.” However, the workers knew all too well that a simple acoustic trigger to shut down the well when explosions occur, costing an estimated $500,000, would have sufficed to prevent such a tragedy.
When nine clean-up workers developed an illness related to the chemicals they were using and needed to be airlifted to a New Orleans hospital, BP CEO Tony Hayward claimed that they probably only had food poisoning.
As the media attempts to separate natural disasters and environmental catastrophes from the reality of climate change, and climate change from the destructive logic of capitalism, oil-covered birds and turtles were promptly labelled the first victims of the oil spill. Yet communities around the world fall victim to the oil and gas industry on a daily basis, and the media remains silent.
Even today fishing communities along the Niger Delta, into which more than 1.5 million tons of oil have been spilled by oil companies, have yet to see a single cent in compensation. No legal case against Royal Shell Dutch has ever been brought to court.
During his election campaign Obama put the environment at the heart of his economic recovery plan, promising to create half a million green jobs and double the production of alternative energy. But once in office he successfully sabotaged climate negotiations at Copenhagen, when he flew in on the last day of the talks, gave an eight-minute speech, and then met up with leaders from China, Brazil, India and South Africa in a backroom of the conference centre to agree on a two and half page document called the “Copenhagen Accord”.
Now faced with the largest environmental disaster in US history he continues to put his faith in BP. During the financial meltdown the Bush administration kept saying that only the banks had the “expertise” to do their job. Today one hears from the White House, “They have the technical expertise to plug the hole.” There is a difference though. The banks could be bailed out; the planet cannot.
The measures taken by the Obama administration do little. The extended moratorium on new deepwater drilling will not prevent further disasters as it only halts exploratory drilling at 33 deepwater operations, shutting down less than 1 percent of the total wells in the Gulf. Most shocking is the fact that BP continues to run one of the world’s largest oil platforms, the Atlantis rig, only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
Any real solution, such as seizing profits from BP, is out of the question for Obama, who now claims to have underestimated the situation and overestimated BP’s capacity to deal with it, saying, “I was wrong in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.”
Amid growing criticisms of inaction over the spill, Obama attempted to shift all responsibility onto BP. This has been attacked in much of the British press as “anti-British”. London mayor Boris Johnson argued, “When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves.” This does nothing to address the question of why anyone should have to rely upon the success of a multinational oil company to receive their pensions.
The oil spill will scar the catastrophe-ridden Mississippi Delta and other states in the region for generations to come. Oil on the surface may only account for just 2 percent of the total spill, due to its emulsification with seawater at such a depth and over such a wide area. This is according to a study conducted in 2000 by the US Minerals Management Service and several oil companies, including BP. So the long-term effects of this spill will be felt for decades, devastating ecological systems and fishing communities, financially as well as environmentally. As the hurricane season approaches it will push the oil over an even wider area and further into delicate marshlands.
A new movement for climate justice
People will remember 20 April 2010 for a long time to come, but not only for the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Starting on the same day, the People’s World Conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was attended by more than 35,000 people, most of them indigenous people and workers.
The conference issued a call for a climate justice tribunal. The document reads, “The International Tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice should have the authority to judge, civilly and criminally, states, multilateral organisations, transnational corporations, and any legal persons for aggravating the causes and impacts of climate change and environmental destruction against Mother Earth.”
The call had been issued by Evo Morales in December 2009 when more than 100,000 people demonstrated for climate justice on the streets of Copenhagen and the world’s leaders treated the United Nations negotiations on climate change as “business as usual”. The conference put capitalism’s destructive logic at the centre of its analysis and sought to mobilise people worldwide.
The UN climate negotiations have come to a standstill since Copenhagen but people have been building alliances and coalitions across the globe. The emerging movement includes traditional environmental organisations, social justice groups, debt campaigners, trade unions and other left wing groups. These alliances could become a force which challenges the destructive practices of companies such as BP and the capitalist system as a whole.
An oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969 led to the legal foundations of environmental policy such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Obama’s administration may be forced to pass some legislation, but this will not stop the destruction of the ecological system and the planet from burning.
The demands of the movement against BP are clear: the oil company should be put on trial for the environmental devastation it has caused and forced to pay for the entire clean-up operation.
The Deepwater disaster shows how little those at the top of our society care for the future of the planet. BP have provided a perfect argument about why capitalism can never be green and it’s a lesson being learnt by millions of people around the globe. Socialists need to put themselves at the heart of the debates that have emerged from Copenhagen and Cochabamba to argue for a movement that starts to challenge the very system itself with the slogan “System change not climate change”.
This will mean reaching out to those groups that haven’t traditionally been part of the environmental movement – in particular working class organisations and trade unions. Trade unions across the world have a record of campaigning for health and safety issues at the workplace. Now it is time to extend that fight to all spheres of life.
By arguing for the creation of climate jobs in their millions and by putting these demands at the heart of the campaign against austerity measures, we have the potential to build a movement that has a different economic strategy – creating a system that puts people and planet before profit.
This article should be read alongside Jonny Jones’ article ‘Let there be blood’