Playing it “Safe” With Big Oil: Deepwater Offshore Drilling Moratorium Upheld

Once again, the money and power yielded by Big Oil has trumped any concern for the environment, our nation’s natural resources and precious eco systems, countless numbers of plants and animals, as well as the safety and even lives of our fellow human beings. For just last night, the 5th District Court of Appeals has terminated any hope of the Obama administration’s 6-month moratorium of new permits and the exploratory drilling of 33 deepwater wells to allow for time to review safety protocols, discover why the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened and to develop measures to ensure this never ever happens again.

Instead, the federal court ruled in favor of Judge Martin Feldman’s June 22 decision that struck down the moratorium. Whereas Feldman claimed it was an “arbitrary and capricious” use of administrative power that would cause “immediate and irreparable harm to business” and, as Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal asserted,  “cost the region thousands of lucrative jobs.”  Other arguments were that the moratorium would cause further damage to the economy as companies take their businesses, jobs and money to foreign waters; amount to a loss of $10 billion to the Federal Treasury; threaten national security as we would have to rely even more on foreign oil – and even cripple world energy supplies.

Welcoming Feldman’s original decision, the American Petroleum Institute had announced, “Our industry and its people can get back to work to provide Americans with the energy they need, and do it safely and without harming the environment.” Ah…

On June 15, during the Subcommittee on Energy and Environmental’s hearing, the czars of Big Oil declared that they would never make the same mistakes as BP did, and that their business practices were far safer, espousing their “overriding commitment to safety excellence.” For example, CEO, Rex Tillerson, described ExxonMobil’s culture of “Nobody Gets Hurt…We do not proceed with operations if we cannot do so safely.” Chevron’s CEO John S. Watson, asserted that, “Chevron’s drilling and control practices for deepwater wells are safe and environmentally sound…Chevron’s commitment to safety is fundamental to who we are.” (except perhaps in Nigeria) President of Shell, Marvin E. Odum stated, “The first imperative of any project is that it be done safely. Safety and environmental protection are, and always will be, Shell’s top priorities.”

However, despite these declarations, all of their Gulf safety response plans, written by the same company, are “virtually, 90% identical” to BP’s. Ergo, in the words of Hon. Edward J. Markey, “just as deficient.” All the plans, except for Shell, mentioned how to protect walruses, although “there aren’t any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico; and there have not been for 3 million years,” and both ExxonMobil and Conoco Philips, along with BP, list the contact number for the same long-expired marine biology expert, Dr. Lutz.

More so, each exec admitted that they do not possess the knowledge, technology, or resources to handle a spill like Deepwater Horizon’s. Basically, as Tillerson explained, “We have to take every step to prevent these things from happening, because when they happen it is a fact that we’re not well equipped to prevent any and all damage…There is no response capability that will guarantee you will never have an impact. It does not exist and it will probably never exist. ”

When asked by Rep. Gonzalez, TX if they could give the American public 100% assurance that that their drilling operations were “free from a similar accident as Deepwater Horizon” the czars responded with, we “cannot give 100 percent assurance of anything in our lives.” “Nothing is 100 percent failsafe.” “There is risk. There are no guarantees in life.”

That being said, the industry does not appear to be overly concerned with developing response capabilities that would minimize the risk. With their massive profits totaling nearly $289 billion over the last 3 years ($64 billion just for last year), the monies spent to research, develop and ensure safe drilling practices are but a pittance. While spending $39 billion in exploration for new oil and gas reserves, the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention, spill response and overall risk reduction, was a paltry $20 million, which is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their profits, less than 1 one-hundredth of a percent of their gross revenues. BP spent $10 million – .06 percent of its profits –  less than one third of what it paid its CEO Tony Hayward ($36.5 million), and  one fifth of what they recently spent on televisions ads to manage their image ($50 million).

So, as there are no guarantees in life, there are guarantees that deepwater drilling is a relatively new technology and that despite their assurances, those who are doing the drilling cannot promise that another disaster will not occur – nor do they have the capability to respond. Are we willing to take the risk? Can we truly risk even more death, destruction, devastation to the Gulf, which is quickly spreading to other shorelines? It seems the federal court, amongst others – at least those who profit from Big Oil –  are willing to take that risk.

For, in defense of Feldman’s decision, the federal appeals court agreed, stating that “ the Interior Department failed to show the federal government would suffer “irreparable injury” if the moratorium is lifted,” unlike those who are employed by and/or profit from (i.e. the Judges) Big Oil. But see, we’re not talking about injury to the federal government, nor the reduction of profits; rather the injury to the wildlife, and to the numerous livelihoods destroyed by BP’s negligence, as well as the inherent dangers of deepwater drilling.

Already, because of these factors, as of last Sunday, the lives of at least 11 humans have been lost, and however many falling ill from the clean up efforts. 1359 birds, 442 Sea Turtles,  and 53 mammals including dolphins, totaling 1854 animals killed,  and these are just the ones ‘officially’ recorded. This does not include the countless number of animals burned, drowned and poisoned from exposure to the oil, or those injured during response efforts. And then there is the loss of breeding grounds, migratory posts, change in foraging patters and the altering of reproductive behavior in a region that was once one of the nation’s most precious ecological treasures; now most likely reduced to a dead zone.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already said that the country can not handle “an additional concurrent oil spill at this time.” Especially as hurricane season begins, with conditions ripe with potential for disastrous storms. Not to mention that other accidents have already recently occurred – Chevron’s spill in Utah, which threatened the Great Salt Lake, and two different blowouts of natural gas.

Obviously, Big Oil cannot, does not, and will not ensure that this will never happen again, nor are they invested in developing means to prevent such tragedies. But, yet again, they get away with it. As always seems to happen with environmental issues, if not disasters, it’s economics and jobs first, before any long term thinking like what will happen to all of those jobs that depend on seafood and tourism that, with a dead Gulf, will not exist.

Because while the loss of the Gulf, and the loss of thousands of jobs and livelihoods is a horrific tragedy, the ultimate environmental catastrophe, caused in main part by the fossil fuel industry,  is just around the corner. And if we do not 12-step our way off of fossil fuels, and truly, earnestly and immediately develop and implement viable sources of alternative energy, the Deepwater Horizon spill will be just a small travesty in the face of complete economic, environmental, social, and international devastation wrought about by climate change.

Sources and further reading
Huffington Post
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment  Hearing: “Drilling Down on America’s Energy Future: Safety, Security, and Clean Energy”

Image credits: SkyTruth, kbarid – all courtesy Flickr

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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