Crosscurrents on the Gulf of Mexico

The International Bird Rescue Research Center facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Erica Miller (left), veterinarian with the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research and colleagues clean a brown pelican covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. (Photo: Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace)

As a kid, I vacationed along the Gulf of Mexico. The egrets, whooping cranes and pelicans were plentiful there. I’ll never forget the joy of watching dolphins follow he ferry from the mainland to Galveston Island. But, as a child in the 1960s, I also remember tar-balls on the beaches of Texas towns on the Gulf.

Ecocide is in progress, along with the destruction of the health and livelihood of people living along the Gulf of Mexico.

On Wednesday May 26, thick oil rolled into Louisianan marshland.

The nesting place for migrating birds and the womb for shrimp and oysters is being destroyed. No one — not British Petroleum or the Coast Guard — were there trying to prevent or clean up the silent horror. CNN’s Anderson Cooper dipped his rubber-gloved hand into the Gulf water and it came up coated with oil. Phillipe Cousteau, son of famous oceanographer Jaques Cousteau, dove into the toxic soup of oil particles and dispersant, a dead sea emptied of creatures.

As this horror unfolded, British Petrolem CEO Tony Hayward walked a public beach, crowded with camera crews and BP workers. President Obama attended a Democratic fund-raiser at the Getty oil family mansion in San Francisco.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for what is happening, but, let’s start with corporate criminal BP.

In recent years, BP paid $730 million in fines, penalties, and settlements for violating environmental protection laws, ignoring worker safety and manipulating the energy market. It’s undeniable that such fines are considered “the cost of doing [big] business as usual”, since none of BP’s behavior has changed.

BP’s profits certainly weren’t hurt: they made $14 billion in 2009 and $6 billion in the first quarter of 2010. Yet, BP refused to put in the $500,000 safety device that could have prevented the current mess.

Unlike other countries such as Brazil and Norway, the U.S. government did not require the safety device.

Now, think about the people we elected in 2008 to create “change” from the Bush-Chaney “Corporations ‘R Us” style of government.

The Mineral Management Services (MMS), under the Department of Interior, is supposed to enforce the Endangered Species Act, but, as the New York Times story reported on May 13, issued drilling permits without independent environmental impact studies. BP got to do its own “studies”without addressing the obvious risks in such deep sea oil drilling or having a response plan for a spill..

“MMS has given up any pretense of regulating the offshore oil industry,” said Kierán Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tuscon environmental advocacy group.“The agency seems to think its mission is to help the oil industry evade environmental laws.”

In the last two weeks — as BP was forced to release the video that shows oil gushing into the Gulf — MMS ssued five more permits for drilling projects. What part of “biggest environmental disaaster in U.S. history” do the heads of the Obama Administration’s environmental agencies not get?

In December 2008, some progressives began questioning President Obama’s appointments to cabinet positions, but, were shot down.

Who did President Obama appoint to head up the agencies charged with protecting the environment?

Here’s the voting record of Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar as a U.S. Senator (D-CO) :

  • 2005, Salazar voted against increasing fuel efficiency standards.
  • 2005: Salazar voted against repealing tax-breaks for major oil companies
  • 2006: Salazar voted to end protections that limited off-shore oil drilling in Florida’s Gulf Coast
  • Salazar voted against requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider climate change in their projects.
  • May 2009:Secretary of the Interior, Salazar continued the Bush policy that forbids Endangered Species Act to address climate change.

So far, Salazar has done nothing in the current Gulf of Mexico crisis, leaving it to BP. He just told a Congresional committee that,”If we find they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.”

For 37 days, BP’s oil leak has spewed into the wetlands, closing Gulf coast to fishing. The oil may get to Florida. If you want to ask Secretary Ken Salazar why he’s keeping BP in charge, call (202) 208-3100.

Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said on Wednesday, that “we just have to pray” that BP’s “top kill” finally plugs the oil gusher. That repeats Jackson’s do-nothing stance when she headed New Jersey’s state environmental agency.

Two years into that job, Jackson still had done nothing about 16,000 abandoned toxic waste sites, claiming a plan was being develpoed. She also supported New Jersey Governor Corzine’s proposal to outsource cleanup efforts to consultants. A 2007 Center for Public Integrity study found outsourcing allowed polluters to profit from the mess they’ve made when they get paid to clean it up. The EPA already gives out such contracts.

And then, there’s President Obama.

He broke a campaign promise at the end of March, when he lifted the offshore oil drilling ban just weeks before this disaster. In his Thursday press conference, Obama said he would, “suspend two drilling projects in Alaska and suspend all drilling in the Gulf”; he promised a six-month moratorium on all deep sea drilling. Does this include the five drilling permits Salazar’s MMS issued in the last two weeks? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Besides a few speeches, Obama has done nothing about the disaster, leaving it to BP. Coast Guard boats are tooling around the Gulf but nobody seems to knoiw what they’re doing. Obama has not directed federal agencies, such as the EPA, to be part of stopping the spill. Apparently, no gernmental agencies were involved early on in determining what dispersants are used nor did they have a voice in organizing the clean-up. He hasn’t called in the U.S. Army of Engineers to aid in blocking the oil from coming ashore. He still hasn’t said what he will do if BP doesn’t end the gusher.

At his May 27 press conference, the President claimed that, from the start, “The federal government has been in charge of the response efforts.”

That’s either untrue, and an attempt to cover up how the Obama administration has colluded in BP’s attempts to minimize the scope of this environmental atrocity. Or if true, it’s President Obama’ “Heckof a job, Brownie” moment.
This is a crossroads for the Obama presidency: Does he stand with criminal corporations or for the public interest?

BP has a horrible record. Will it be held accountable? So, far, accountability is not Obama’s strong suit. Wall Street fraudsters, contractors bilking us out of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan (still get no-bid contracts), torturers and other criminals of the Bush Administration have not faced a single indictment.

His supporters have been saying, “Give him time–he’s inherited this huge mess from Bush!”

Well, the mess in the Gulf is on President Obama and he’s made no decernable stand at all.

If this disaster tells us anything, it’s that it is now time to go into overdrive to build clean, renewable energy alternatives. Not by “Beyond Petroleum” or “green-washing” major corporations, such as BP, but, by investing in the small and medium-sized businesses that have already embraced renewable energy — and are also the companies that actually create most new jobs.

President Obama can still redeem his initial passivity in the fact of BP’s Gulf oil disaster, by channeling the spirit of FDR after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 18 months, FDR got the U.S. ready to fight WWII. We had no real standing army and had lost a big chunk of our navy, but, it only took a year and a half to build what was needed for war. That’s the kind of focus we need to address this energy and environmental crisis, to make the investments and implement the technological turn-around towards a whole lot more of our energy coming from clean sources.

Yes, it will take longer than 18 months, but, so far too damn little has been done. After international talks on climate change in Copenhagen, the U.S. set the puny goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent. Current mileage standards are absurd, averaging in the low 20s per gallon. Energy conservation must become a way of life, too. (Remember the rationing that Americans did during WWII? ) Carpools, bikes, bus, and light rail to work anyone? Turning off lights and unplugging gadgets?

Finally, this is a crossroads for the American people. We have to change our habits–which includes getting a hell of a lot more politically active and far more conscious about our own energy usages.

You can write the EPA and demand that they issue a “disbarment” to BP: that would mean BP can’t get permits and federal contracts to drill. When Fox News asked Lisa Jackson if this was a possibility, she waffled. Public pressure might help Jackson’s decision-making process.

Anyone can boycott BP right now (One million people have already signed up to do so. ) Don’t buy BP gasoline or their Casterol brand lubricants.

Alaskans and their environment are still suffering from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Gulf of Mexico and the communities along its shore are just beginning to feel the impact of the spill. As Democracy NOW! reported May 27, BP remain indifferent to worker safety (as it was before the initial explosion. ) BP is demanding respirators NOT be worn by clean-up workers. Any who do will be fired. BP continues to try to minimize the public relations impact of their oil spill.

In an act of supreme hypocrisy, Republicans wasted little time trying to score political points, by calling the Gulf spill Obama’s Katrina. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, but, the “Drill, baby, drill” folks have no leg to stand on this time. Since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were both oil men who undermined all science-based environmental protections on their watch, Republicans should finally join the fact-based community.

Now, would be a good time for a clean environment and holding criminal corporations accountable to become bi-partisan positions.

President Obama campaigned on creating a “green economy.” As president, he lifted the oil drilling ban, ended the nuclear plant moratorium, and supported Big Coal. As with so many issues, Obama’s words and actions go in opposite directions.

Obama supporters have shown cognitive dissonance when it comes to the president’s corporate-friendly policies. That must now give way to a demand for accountability and action. It’s time for libewrals’ excuse-making to end. The BP oil disaster exposes bi-partisan government collusion with corporate greed. It shows that workers have been treated as expendable when it comes to health and safety. Corporate profits thruogh extractive degradation of our environment, from coal and oil drilling gets bi-partisan protection. Democrats have differed from Republicans in their campaign rhetoric, but, the betrayal has been bipartisan.

What we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico must be a wake-up call for all of us. The time of cheap gas and squandering our environment is over.

When asked if she’d boycott BP, a woman interviewed by CNN said, “It’s the gas station closest to my house, so…..No.”

ITalk about lame. But, let’s face it, self-indulgence is a hallmark of American culture. If we want to expect more from our elected officials, we’re going to have expect more from ourselves, too. If we want real change, we’re going to have to exercise the political pressure that is the only thing that’s ever makes change happen. What happens in the aftermath of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history will reveal the content of Barack Obama’s character — and our own — as clearly as BP’s criminality has already been exposed for all to see.

Lydia Howell

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the 2007 Premack Aard for Public Interest Journalism, and producer/host of “Catalyst:politics & culture” on KFAI Radio.

Published by the LA Progressive on May 28, 2010
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