BP, Meet Cassandra

BP’s Deepwater Horizon’s blowout is the largest oil disaster in the United States, far  surpassing Exxon Valdez, which 21 years ago contaminated 1500 miles of coastline, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of birds, otters, seals and whales, and devastated local communities, which are still dealing with the consequences even today.

The lessons to be learned of this incredibly horrific event are as numerous and massive as the gazillions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf and beyond. For starters, offshore drilling is not such a good idea, and never has been, judging by the 1969 Union Oil Rig Spill in Santa Barbara. Secondly – surprise, surprise – oil is not a clean, nor safe, nor a renewable resource. Now really would be the time to kick our addiction to fossil fuels in favor of truly clean, safe, and renewable resources. Third; well, oil companies, (nor really any incredibly huge, corporate industry) cannot be trusted, and definitely cannot be trusted to put safety or its workers or the environment before profits, because heck, why not take the risk. There will always be seagulls, right?

This brings us to the fourth and perhaps the most important lesson: That it is time, once and for all, to learn from our past mistakes. Already in the twenty year history of deepwater drilling there have been serious problems and numerous accidents including fires, gas leaks, loss of power, equipment failures, poor maintenance, blowouts, wells that collapsed, platforms that nearly sank…

BP being a prime example, if not the poster child, of these hazards as it has consistently put profits ahead of safety.

For example, in January 2001, BP employees sent a letter to oil industry watchdog, Charles Hamel, asking him for assistance in getting BP to address their safety concerns:

We were concerned about our recommendations being ignored and disregarded in the OSHA required hazard reviews…concerned about BP’s cost cutting efforts undermining our ability to respond to emergencies, and reducing the reliability of critical safety systems…about the lack of preventative maintenance on our equipment.” Additionally, “It is clear that BP Management has one priority and that is cost reduction…If these concerns are not addressed, we feel that a major catastrophe is imminent. We have only our lives and our futures at risk here.”

Since that letter, which Hamel did sent to BP as well as President Bush, BP has been responsible for at least 10 disastrous and deadly accidents resulting from equipment failure and negligence. They have been convicted of felony violations of both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and have paid at least $158 million dollars in fines and penalties, including the largest fine ever imposed by OSHA ($87,430,000). The second largest fine was issued by OSHA in 2005,  also against BP.

According to Scott West, former special agent of the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in charge of a 2005  probe into BP’s activities, in which there had been numerous warnings of safety concerns before the massive Prudhoe Bay spill, “BP turned a blind eye and deaf ear to their experts who predicted a major spill. It wasn’t an intentional act to put oil on the ground, but it was an intentional act to ignore their employees. That’s negligence and its criminal.” In 2007, The Minerals Management Service cited BP for a “’lack of knowledge of the system, and lack of pre-event planning and procedures.”

Ergo, it should come as no surprise that with Deepwater Horizon, “BP made several cost-cutting and time saving decisions in its choice of well designs.” Even BP’s Tony Hayward admitted, “It’s probably true that BP didn’t do enough planning in advance of the disaster. There are some capabilities, that we could have available to deploy instantly, rather than creating as we go.”

And now, more than six weeks after the disaster, and after yet another BP spill in Alaska on May 25, in which BP operators stated, “procedures weren’t properly implemented,” finally President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have announced criminal investigations into the matter. To “ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable,” and prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.” Which really shouldn’t be too hard. As US District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, who prosecuted BP in 2007 affirmed, oil spills were a “serious crime” that could have been prevented if BP had spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a “little less emphasis on profit.”

There is a reason that environmentalists are referred to as “Climate Cassandras.” Not because they possess the gift of prophecy, but because with knowledge, foresight and hindsight, they understand the potential and likelihood for tragic, catastrophic events. They call for preventative measures – often just decency and common sense – to ensure these disasters do not occur.

So next time someone accuses you of spreading doom and gloom or calls you Cassandra, just remind them what happened in Santa Barbara, Valdez, the Massey Mine, Three Mile Island, Chernoyble and now Deepwater Horizon, to name but a few.  Remind them that that the only way to stop history from repeating itself is to end our addictive dependence on dangerous and dirty fossil fuel and risky nuclear power. Warn them of the urgent need to immediately implement a National Energy plan.

If we fail  to learn from the past and plan for the future, it will soon not be the fall of Troy that we’re worried about, or the devastating destruction of the Gulf, but truly, with climate change and unsustainable resource consumption, the end of the world as we know it.

It is time to wake up.

Image credit: Truthout, courtesy Flickr

Further reading:
Cassandra in the Gulf

Gwenn Morreale
Gwenn Morreale
Gwenn grew up on the campus of Bard College in a small town made famous by Steely Dan in the Hudson Valley. A nature girl her entire life, she was definitely inspired by Pete Seeger and the Clearwater, and was lucky enough as a high school intern to sail on the sloop for an entire week. She holds a M.A. in Media Ecology/Communications from New York University where she wrote her thesis on the contrarian’s use of propaganda to create a debate about climate change. For the past four years, she has been developing outreach campaigns, and researching and writing about climate change and energy efficiency. Prior to this, she has worked in the entertainment industry developing documentaries, and managing a plethora of film, television and theatrical productions in New York and Los Angeles. Currently she resides in Los Angeles and is developing websites and video projects, and researching and writing about environmental issues, for the Sierra Club and the Shadowland Foundation.

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