A new step in capitalism’s devastation of the planet
On 20 April 2010 an explosion rocked the floating rig Deepwater Horizon about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The rig finally sank on Thursday, April 22, causing the worst oil spill in history and leaving the blown-off drill pipe gushing millions of gallons of oil and methane gas into the ocean every day. This has been going on for almost one month at the time of writing, and will go on for an unforeseen number of months to come. This oil spill adds to the long list of ecological catastrophes caused by capitalism's blind rape of the planet as it searches for ever cheaper ways to maintain a competitive edge. It also reminds us of what's in store for the workers' future safety conditions. The explosion killed eleven workers, and comes in the wake of the recent explosion of a West Virginia coal mine which left 24 workers dead.
At the level of the impact on the environment and the livelihood of the local people, the damage being caused by this disaster is immeasurable, and will last for decades to come. The ‘disaster prevention' agency set up by the capitalist state in the form of the Minerals Management Service has been exposed as totally corrupt and utterly inept. While its function was officially to make sure that pre-drilling operations were safe for the environment, and that the equipment used was safe for human lives, it was at the same time charged with collecting hefty royalties from the oil companies, a practice put in place in order to allow cheap costs of production to take precedence over considerations for the environment and human lives. In fact, the federal government fills its coffers with oil company royalties, and buys oil at a cheap price as the oil companies shift the economic burden onto the backs of their workers by cutting costs and more and more disregarding safety measures. This is reminiscent of the role of the state agency that was supposed to deal with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, FEMA. The total bankruptcy of these bodies put in place by the capitalist state is so evident that president Obama has decided to split the MMS in two. One part of it will now collect the royalties while the other will supervise operations. This is how capitalism is trying to save face and mop up the mess.
Oil giant BP itself, as well as Transocean which BP contracted for labour, and Halliburton, contracted for equipment and some drilling procedures and material, blame each other for the disaster, in a daily mud-slinging match. BP is so confident in the force of its economic stature that it even pleaded to surpass federal government standard liability imposed in such cases. While the maximum penalty imposed is $75 million, BP has pledged $89 million. It does not say, however, that its revenues for the first quarter of 2010 were in the billions. BP's added self-imposed liability amounts to increasing our cable bill by about $5 a month for just a couple of months of the year. Halliburton, on its part, laughs at the supposedly ‘strict' penalties the capitalist state will pass against it because it knows its insurance will pay it about three times as much as it will have lost in revenues. And what about the ‘cleaning up' of the environment? Well, the Coast Guard is using oil boons! That's the equivalent of using Kleenex tissue to try and mop up the water from a flooded house.
These operations are so totally inadequate that residents of New Orleans anticipate that the oil from the spill will be dumped on shore during this year's just starting hurricane season, causing further devastation to an already impoverished and contaminated area. As for the bosses' regard for human lives, the explosion led to a night of terror for the men working on the rig, and an anxious night of waiting for their families. During the rescue operations performed under Coast Guard supervision, several oil workers contracted by Transocean, the Swiss-based company that owned the rig, were kept on board a rescue boat, watching the Horizon burn for about 12 hours before the vessel finally headed to shore, a trip that then took another 12 hours or so. One of the workers said, "They kept us there until almost 11:30 the next morning, letting us watch our buddies burn. We counted over 25 boats there. There was no reason to keep us there." They were pulled aside for tape-recorded interviews before they were allowed to see their families and were not given phones or radios to get in touch with them. It is obvious the authorities wanted to question the oil workers before they could speak with anyone on shore, the better to distort and obscure any inkling as to the truth of the ‘accident'.
All of this is enough to indict the moribund system we live in. But it doesn't end here. The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is at least 10 times the size of official estimates. Expert findings suggest the BP spill is already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil, remnants of which can still be found today, 21 years later. Scientists' estimates, more accurate than the lies peddled by BP in its attempts to limit its liability and clean up its image as an ‘environmentally responsible' oil giant, put the amount of oil and gas spilled at between 56,000 and 100,000 barrels a day. This new, much larger, number suggests that capturing - and cleaning up - this oil will be a much bigger challenge than anyone has let on. BP keeps claiming the spill is 5,000 barrels a day.
Sure enough BP has a long history of violations, but it has many accomplices, the US state being the greatest. One of BP's largest refineries in the US exploded in March 2005 causing 15 deaths, injuring 180 people and forcing thousands of nearby residents to remain sheltered in their homes. The incident was the culmination of a series of less serious accidents at the refinery, and the engineering problems were not addressed by the management. Maintenance and safety at the plant had been cut as a cost-saving measure, the responsibility ultimately resting with executives in London. There have been several investigations of the disaster, and eventually the company pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, was fined $50 million, and sentenced to three years probation. On October 30, 2009, the US Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration (OSHA) fined BP an additional $87 million - the largest fine in OSHA history - for failing to correct safety hazards revealed in the 2005 explosion. Inspectors found 270 safety violations that had been previously cited but not fixed and 439 new violations. BP is appealing against that fine.
The list of violations by BP is endless, and the list of disputes between BP and the US government is impressively long. One has to wonder, then, why such an environmental charlatan as BP is allowed by the US to have 40% of its market in this country. In fact, by allowing very lax environmental and safety safeguards, the US is a prime accomplice in the disasters perpetrated by BP. It is certainly economically very convenient for the US to have to buy its own oil from a company that produces it at a low price. The US allows it to contract out parts of its labour - as BP did in this case with Transocean and Halliburton - and BP operates in US waters. Its record of malpractice, cost-cutting, use of old or malfunctioning equipment, and utter disregard for workers' safety make it possible for BP to produce at a low cost! The drawback is nonetheless serious: it is that the US is at a technological disadvantage in the modernisation of its own oil extracting and production apparatus in the context of an increased need for the cheapest sources of energy available, i.e. oil. This is what lies at the heart of the present proposed energy reform bill by the Obama administration. In the contest of the aggravating economic crisis, the US desperately needs to gain a competitive edge on the world market. The disputes have also involved the US and Britain over their involvement with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, for example, a thorn in the side of the US as it tries to gain control over resources which other countries - European states, China - also want. This is why we would be mistaken to believe that the actions by the US agencies aimed at penalising BP's worst behaviour are a reflection of the state's concern for the safety of the environment and human lives. On the contrary, the US is using these environmental disasters to clean up its own image as the champion of environmental protection and assert its authority in an industry which is vital to its competitiveness on the world market. It is effectively transforming such disasters into weapons of its own trade wars against other countries, in the case of BP, against Britain.
The US, like all other capitalist states, knows perfectly well that the dependence on oil will not be done away with any time soon under current capitalist conditions, and less so at the time of its most acute economic crisis. Oil is the only source of energy that can give it a competitive edge, regardless of the environmental or human cost. And above all, oil is absolutely indispensable as a weapon of war, the ultimate expression of capitalist competition - both because it is vital for fuelling your own war machine, and because control over its sources can be used to hamper the war machines of your rivals.
Capitalism will never be ‘green'. Its disregard for man and nature explodes each day more forcefully the bourgeoisie's mystifications and lies about its ability to bring a better tomorrow. The many images of dying wildlife, and the knowledge of the loss of human lives and livelihood resulting from this and other disasters, can only full us with horror and outrage, and a deep concern about the future. This event further exposes the utter irrationality of capitalism. It can prompt a fruitful reflection on the fact that human life and the planet are at a crossroads where there is a real possibility of the human species becoming extinct because of the continued existence of capitalism. It is high time we destroy capitalism, before it destroys us.