Burning up planet Earth
BP's advanced technology exists purely to serve the destructive interests of capital, writes Eddie Ford
Quite clearly, the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the worst ever human-made environmental catastrophe to hit the United States. Even worse than the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. When the Deepwater Horizon rig - a massive, semi-submersible, floating oil drilling platform - exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 rig workers, it guaranteed that the damaging effects would be felt for many years to come.
So far, nightmarishly, at least 20 million gallons of crude oil have now spilled into the Gulf - oil from the Deepwater Horizon has been found on beaches and wetlands along more than 100 miles of coastline from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. Meanwhile, something between 12,000 and 24,000 barrels - up to 504,000 gallons - is spewing into the Gulf every day, continuing to wreak near incalculable devastation. Grimly, there is the distinct possibility that things could get even worse, especially now that it is storm season again. Hurricanes and tornadoes could easily act to disrupt the almost mind-bogglingly complicated engineering and cleaning up task that confronts BP.
The company, obviously, has been unable to plug the leak - despite chucking all its latest technology at the problem. Initially, a huge dome was placed over it, but that became totally blocked up by ice crystals. Controlled burning and dispersants have also been used - however, they are utterly inadequate and can have calamitous ecological consequences in terms of air pollution and the local wild life. BP’s attempted ‘top kill’ operation to blast waste material and heavy mud into the ruptured well also ended in failure.
Subsequently, BP turned to the Lower Marine Riser Package Cap Containment System to help stem the flow - which saw undersea robots dive to a depth of 5,000 feet in order to slice through the damaged pipe with the intention of making a clean cut which can then be connected to another pipe (the cap) which captures the leaking oil and pumps it up to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship above. The cap was finally attached on June 3 - leading BP’s British chief executive, Tony Hayward, to bullishly state that the amount of oil being captured was “probably the vast majority of the oil”. However, the live stream of the oil escaping from the capped pipe does not appear to be substantially reduced. Indeed, ominously, Ira Leifer - a member of the US government’s Flow Rate Technical Group - claims that the well pipe is “clearly” gushing more oil than before the cap was placed: perhaps at BP’s “worst case scenario” rate of 100,000 barrels a day.
Currently, BP is drilling a relief well into the original well - and a second one for back-up upon the insistence of the government - in the hope that this might offer a ‘permanent’ solution to the crisis. Once the relief well reaches the original borehole, or so the theory goes, the operator will then pump drilling mud into the original well to block it up and hence stop the flow of oil. But it will be at least two to three months before the relief well becomes operationally effective, and even under the most optimistic scenario only something in the region of 11,000-15,000 barrels a day are being captured.
Effectively, BP is groping in the dark. To date, none of its technology and science - breathtakingly impressive though it is - has been up to the job. BP has been strongly criticised by, to name just one scientist, Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University. After examining video footage from the early days of the disaster, he told ABC News that the company - along with the US Coast Guard and the Obama administration - had seriously underestimated the spill rate into the Gulf right from the outset. Thus for more than a month both BP and all the various federal agencies had placed the figure at 5,000 barrels a day. In fact, so determined were they to stick to the original estimate, that on April 30 both coast guard rear admiral Mary Landry and BP held a joint press conference in which they claimed to be “focused on the response” and offered the view that people should not get “fixated on an estimate of how much is out there”. Shockingly, the original video film was not made public until more than a month after the spill, with coast guard officials saying BP had refused to allow them to release the more startling images on the grounds that they were “proprietary”.
Anyway, thanks to this initial complacency, which saw BP and the respective governmental bodies falling “behind the information curve” - to use the words of professor MacDonald - the surface ships did not have sufficient tanker space to contain the crude oil being pumped up through BP’s hi-tech bodge jobs. At most, they were only capable of receiving 15,000 barrels daily. So the problem just grew worse, not better.
Appalling environmental catastrophe now beckons. The terrible danger being that the Deepwater Horizon explosion may have inflicted permanent and irreversible destruction upon large swathes of the marine life of that region. This area of the US is ecologically highly unusual due to the patterns of land and sea that were brought into existence by the manner in which the mighty Mississippi river flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Here lie about 25% of all US wetlands, areas teeming with life - and where human occupancy is low, hence enabling birds and other animals to thrive. For birds especially, the timing of the disaster could not have been any worse - just at the time of year when they are breeding and nesting. Now, of course, the birds’ nesting grounds are threatened by oil slicks. The list of species potentially affected, maybe brought to the edge of near extinction, is large - black-crowned night heron, brown pelicans, white ibis, black skimmer and all types of migratory birds (such as piping plovers, swallows, buntings and oystercatchers) that use the Gulf wetlands as a stopover point. Indeed, for some species this is the only stable home left remaining, the furious human development inland having forced them to take refuge further afield.
Obviously, the longer it takes BP to stem the flow, the greater the chance that its impact will be felt around the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and even in its open water. If the oil flows east, it will encounter the sea-grass beds that form a key habitat for manatees, among other species. This is a species that is already under severe stress. Fewer than 2,500 adults remain, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List reports that the Florida subspecies is expected to decline by at least 20% over the next 40 years - with various factors implicated, including climate change and incessant boating-related activities.
As if things were not bad enough, the Gulf waters are already affected annually by fertilisers washing down from southern US farmlands, resulting in an apocalyptic ‘dead zone’ where algae have consumed most of the dissolved oxygen and virtually nothing else can grow. The Atlantic bluefin tuna is another possible victim. Over the coming weeks, the western population of this heavily depleted species will spawn - principally in the northern portion where the slick is growing. Clearly, the oil will have a deadly impact, possibly proving to be toxic to the eggs or to the young fry. Also, the young hide in sargassum - floating marine plants. They are extremely vulnerable at this stage and could be adversely affected. Furthermore, tests have shown that underwater oil plumes have travelled at least 40 miles from the original disaster site. Oil plumes are very difficult to clean up and they could potentially damage the Gulf’s abundant sea life by depleting the oxygen in the water.
Self-evidently, the explosion has had a devastating impact upon the economy - particularity tourism and the fishing industry. For example, Louisiana’s shrimping season has now officially begun: yet most boats are anchored until various toxicity tests have been completed. In other words, the fishing villages and local communities face economic ruination. First Katrina, now Deepwater Horizon.
All of this, naturally, has created a huge wellspring of anger against BP. The New York Daily News has described Tony Hayward as the “most hated” and “clueless man” in America. His family in Kent have received voluminous hate mail and threatening phone calls. They now need constant police protection. Obama has also come under fire for doing too little, too late. Obviously stung by such criticisms, he has launched stinging attacks on Tony Hayward - especially for the BP chief’s various comments about “I want my life back”, the Gulf is “a big ocean” and how the environmental impact of the disaster was likely to be “very, very modest”. In response, Obama declared that Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements” and that he had visited the Louisiana coast, “so I know whose ass to kick”.
BP declared at the beginning of the week that the current cost of its response to the disaster had reached approximately $1.25 billion. However, this figure does not include $360 million for a project to build six sand berms to protect Louisiana’s wetlands from the spreading oil. But we should not weep too much for BP, seeing how it made a $20 billion profit last year and has $6.5 billion of cash ‘in the bank’ - not to mention access to some $5.5 billion or more of undrawn credit facilities.
Communists, like so many others, are absolutely appalled by the disaster that has swept over this part of the US. Yes, of course, we agree with all those who think that BP has been grossly irresponsible - to the extent that it is not even covered by any form of external insurance, instead hubristically opting for a ‘self-insurance’ scheme to cover ‘major events’. Yes, of course, BP must stump up the bill for the cleaning up operation - no matter what the cost may turn out to be. However, communists in the US would also be well advised not to let the Obama administration get away with its nationalist ‘Brit-baiting’ in the attempt to absolve itself of any responsibility for the disaster.
BP, of course, is a British-based transnational company - though its chairman is Swedish and some 40% of its shares are owned in the US. More to the point, BP was allowed to drill in the Gulf of Mexico by the US auhorities and was supposed to be under constant inspection. So if BP has been found wanting when it comes to contingency plans, so has the US administration.
But we are obliged to posit the broader, more important question - how did the disaster happen in the first place? Or, to put it more exactly - leaving aside all the technical details about what caused the explosion - what drives a company like BP to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in the first place? The answer is quite straightforward, almost disconcertingly so - it exists to use the full panoply of human ingenuity and inventiveness in order make a profit, a fast buck for itself and its shareholders. That is, BP is driven by the same impulse that governs - at the end of the day - every other business and the capitalist economy as a whole: the relentless drive for accumulation. No matter what the cost or resources squandered - environmental or human.
From that perspective, BP and the Gulf disaster offers us a perfect snapshot of the irrational and contradictory nature of actually existing capitalism. So we have the awesome and marvellous - if not near miraculous - technology needed to extract oil thousands of feet under the ocean. Something, just like the moon landings, that gives us a flavour of human potential - of what is possible. On the other hand, all this science and technology is used to extract a relatively rare resource, oil, and then ... burn it in car engines, power stations, etc. Last year the world consumed 3,882 million tonnes of oil and has proven reserves of some 181 thousand million tonnes. Such squandering of this non-renewable energy source not only allows people to move from A to B and to keep the lights on. Its use is bound up with capitalism’s need for constant self-expansion for the sake of self-expansion. In other words, the creative and transformative power of science and technology is deployed in the destructive service of capital.
So oil goes into cars, and the car industry lies at the core of the capitalist economy - it is embedded in our daily lives. As of 2009, there were 29.6 million cars in the UK, a frankly absurd number for a population of only 61.4 million - with many households possessing two or more vehicles. And we use them to travel up to 60 miles or more every day in order to get to work or take the kids to school because the streets are too dangerous - primarily thanks to cars. Of course, given the nature of the capitalist beast, car manufacturers are not content with the existing numbers - they want to manufacture and sell more cars, like 200 or 300 million to the Indian and Chinese market. If they can, they will get us to buy their ‘green’ electric cars and whatever else they can try to dazzle us with. But sell more damned cars to more and more people, no matter how much of the Earth’s resources are devoured in the process and how much our environment is degraded. Crazy, yes, but totally rational and logical from the viewpoint of capitalism. Profit for profit’s sake. Production for production’s sake.
No, rather, communists fight for a rational socialist world - which would involve a lot less necessary labour time, a lot less unnecessary travel. A socialist world, a red world, would have far fewer cars - just as it would consume far less electricity and waste far less food.
In that sense, communists aim to socialise travel - as we do all other areas of life. Not in some mindlessly bureaucratic, top-down, Soviet fashion - with red bureaucrats at the centre stifling the life out of society. Nor, needless to say, do we do seek to emulate Cuba’s horse-and-carts economy, its poverty. But instead communists fight to socialise society in a fundamentally democratic way, so that we can use all the resources at our disposal - and time - in a more planned and rational manner. No more dashing for endless growth. No more endless consumption. Under socialism, under a democratic plan, less will be more. Or, to use a phrase coined by VI Lenin - better few, but better.
For communists - unlike BP, Shell and the rest - oil, like all other natural resources, is not some free gift to be frittered away as if we were greedy children out to conquer and dominate nature. Rather, it is to be treated as a precious resource to be cherished and husbanded.