Friday, July 9, 2010

A Little Bit of Oil Soaked Americana

A few weeks ago I took a spur-of-the-moment trip with my friend Dan down to Panama City Beach. While the only items on our agenda consisted of relaxation and light boozing, the timing was a matter of necessity—we were determined to enjoy the beach one last time before the oil washed ashore. At this time Panama City Beach was one of the only beaches left in Florida that hadn’t been tarnished by the great oil gush of 2010. Some men with nice suits, yachts, and Ivy League educations had decided to be reckless with their oil rigs, and left a hole in the ocean spewing out 2,500,000 gallons of oil a day (and showing no sign of stopping thus far). All of this in the name of inflating the profit margin just a little. I’ve seen a number of different reactions by ordinary Americans, frustrated by an ongoing disaster they are powerless to stop. One that brought a little twinkle to my eye was seeing a Facebook group titled “We need a death penalty for corporations!” with the BP logo as the symbol. With corporations having won the right to be granted legal personhood, this would seem to be a pretty sensible approach. Incidents like this make me a little nostalgic for a time from deep in America’s past, when people used to really know how to riot. One thing that stands out in a reading of American colonial history was the colonists’ penchant for a good dust-up. It didn’t take a whole lot for mobs of Bostonians to take to the streets when they felt aggrieved. Now the average American is a little more domesticated, a little more tame, and only prone to rioting after a Lakers victory—but I’ll be damned if it wouldn’t warm my heart if I were to drive by a BP headquarters and see an angry mob smashing the place up.

My response, however, was not to grab a bat and head to the nearest BP station— I just figured we better enjoy some innocent American fun down by the beach before dead animals started washing ashore.

I would expect a range of emotions to be displayed at a time like this, but the response I can’t understand is defense for the oil industry, or defense of the status quo-- and yet I still hear such arguments, from the familiar haunts. Rush Limbaugh, corporate shill that he is, tried to downplay the crisis by insisting that oil is natural and that nature would take care of itself. Glenn Beck, in the midst of one of his tantrums railing against imaginary Leninists and Maoists, argued that it’s unnecessary to stop drilling because there is a 99% success rate for deepwater drilling (I could easily provide the rejoinder, but my friend Dan said it perfectly, a little further down in this post.) These men, the Beck’s and the Limbaugh’s of the media world, are the modern day Neros, fiddling from their studios while America slowly burns to the ground.

Of course, if the opinion is aired on right-wing talk radio or Fox News, you can count on hearing it repeated by some regular folks in Alabama. Even as their beaches are being ruined I’ve heard many Southerners issue the opinion that deep water drilling should continue, without demanding any change in practice or regulatory oversight. I’m not quite sure how they managed such a victory over men’s minds, but corporate propaganda has convinced many common Americans to come to the defense of the very practices that are ruining their lives.

Far away from corporate board rooms and Washington offices, the people whose lives are touched by this disaster are debating how we should proceed. The turmoil over how to handle this crisis is crystallized perfectly in the following email exchange from my rugby team.

[The first email is one of those cut and paste forwarded emails that tends to find its way to the rugby email list. It was terribly long, so I’ve put up excerpts from it]

Forwarded email:
The reason for this letter is to ask you to write your congressman Charlie
Melancon and Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. Or whoever it might be
wherever you are. I know some of my contacts are out of state. We all know
what's going on in the gulf. But all our lives are about to change...
drastically! Here's how.

There is a Moratorium set in place for 6 months or until further notice. And
this doesn't just affect the oilfield, its going to change your life too.
Let me explain. With this "Moratorium" or ban of drilling in the Gulf, that
means that 33 rigs are going to be put out of work. For every rig there are
about 200-300 people per rig. That's somewhere in the ball park of around
9000 people. There are an estimated 3 people for every person who works on a
rig that indirectly work for each person on a rig (Crew Boats, Supply Boats,
Chopper Pilots, etc.) So that brings us up to around 27000 people out of
work in the next two weeks. That doesn't include individual company layoffs.

Obama is pissing off these companies and they're threatening to go overseas.
Just like the Jones Act protects us in that non U.S. flagship vessels have
to employ U.S. citizens in this country, they have the same rules wherever
these boats end up. On boats, that means "ONE" American captain and"ONE"
American engineer if they push the issue. The rest of the crew is foreign on
"OUR" boats.

The oilfield has supported the economy throughout the entire country for a
very long time much less South LA. They said that if all the southern
Parishes in LA formed a single State, that we would be among the tenth
largest economy in the world. That's how much money is coming through here
from the oilfield. What do you think has kept our economy going?

They said that if a hurricane come through it will suck up the oil and it
will rain oil. There goes the sugarcane. Pour some oil on your lawn and see
what happens. What about seafood? Well we already know that's shot, but even
if it weren't, go take a ride down the bayou. How many rich fisherman do you
know? Ask any fisherman and they will tell you that throughout their life
they have supplemented their income in the oilfield. That's right. Most of
them work in the oilfield in the off season.

I'm the first one to say that we need alternative fuels but we can't just
cut off oil overnight. That fact is oil companies have been very safe over
the last 50 years. They have among the fewest casualties, per amount of
people who work there, in any industry. I realize the impact the this is
having on our environment just as well as anyone. I'm right here in the
middle of it. I see the birds covered in oil and I hate it as much as you.
But we have to get our priorities straight. The birds affected are going to
be affected whether we stop production or not.
With a moratorium, not only are the birds going to be dying on our beaches,
but now our kids will be starving in our homes.

The fact is BP messed up. Not us. We are having to pay for the mistakes of
one man (or two men or ten men whatever the case may be) that made a tragic
decision that's impacting the lives of so many. If you think we were in a
depression before, you don't know what's about to hit us. How much of oil
revenue money has affected your life when you put it in perspective? People
this is not an"oilfield" problem. This is a national issue.

Geno this is not an industry that needs apologists now! They've got enough $1,000 an hour attorneys doing their dirty work for them!

Little bit of history, google " IXTOC 1 June 1979"

This is a load of crap! It doesn't matter if they have high paid attorneys. The fact is gulf coast seafood makes up less the 5 % of the economy in LA the Oil industry 16%. Do the math! It is going to do no good to stop the oil industry in the gulf even if only for six months! We all will suffer from this. In my opinion it is only making the situation worse!

Chaney, are economic indicators, employment, GDP, and economic production metrics the only things that matter to our society/government???? If so, what will you say when, in our lifetime, China's Gross National Product exceeds our own?
Does that mean that we should switch to their method of top down social control, restriction of right to assembly, limited freedom of press, and greatly limited individual freedoms and property rights because their form of governance produces higher economic output?
My point is this, there are other things in this world that have value besides the all mighty dollar. If you didn't see JW's post earlier this already happened once in 1979. How many environmental disasters do we have to suffer through before we wonder if this is worth it? The fact is these guys don't know what they are doing or how to fix their screw ups when they make them. They don't listen to their own engineers and they repeatedly choose the quick, easy, and cheap ways to do things which puts all of us in jeopardy. I don't care how many damn wells they have operated safely in the Gulf if when one screws up it ruins the Gulf for an entire generation.
If I can't make the emotional environmental responsibility argument then what about if, as computer models predict, this thing spreads out of the Gulf moving around the state of Florida and up the entire Eastern Seaboard? Crushing the fisheries and tourist economies of Florida the Carolinas and beyond. How will the loss of Oil drilling in Louisiana compare to the economic losses there?
This can and likely will happen again!

AMEN Chaney. Since we don't know the answer or have the facts lets shut everybody down. Keeping it simple...."2 wrongs don't make a right".

Pauley, so if we don't have all the facts and know the answers shouldn't we try and get them and make sure we understand them before we open ourselves up to repeating this tragedy??? I mean the facts as I see them are; the status quo led to this disaster, federal regulators don't seem to be doing their jobs, we don't know how to shut off deep water rigs when their wells blow and none of these companies have viable comprehensive clean up and containment plans when the shit really hits the fan.
So I agree with you we don't have the facts or the answers and I suggest we get them before we give these guys a chance to repeat this tragedy.

The piece of legislation referred to in the original forwarded email was the moratorium on oil drilling— what "moratorium" would have amounted to would be a temporary pause, to reconsider how (or if) we should be drilling for oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government’s request for a six month deep water drilling moratorium. The federal government will pursue other avenues to put a moratorium on deep water drilling— a decision which clearly shows that they aren’t confident in the effectiveness of the regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service. And rightfully so; the MMS was inadequately funded for many years and its members were literally in bed with the oil industry.

The corruption of the MMS by the very industry it was supposed to be regulating is no isolated incident. Instead it falls neatly into the longer trend of federal deregulation in many areas of the American economy at the behest of big business. The weakening, and in some cases, crippling of government oversight has allowed American corporations to run away with record profits, tending only to shareholders, while ignoring detrimental effects on stakeholders. This deregulation has been going on since Reagan took office, and has been lauded by Republicans as a triumph of the “free market”. Federal oversight, contend free market cultists, is an unnatural intrusion of the government into the free market— which, if only allowed to run unfettered, would naturally create the best possible society. It’s easy to hide behind such rhetoric, but it falls apart almost immediately upon serious examination.

For one thing, you won’t hear a peep out of these same legislators when it comes time to pass the most extreme and overt manifestation of government intervention in the US economy— the US military budget. The 2011 Pentagon budget comes in at over $720 billion. In fiscal year 2009, $376 billion of the defense budget was given directly to defense contractors. Have you heard any complaints from the business community, or politicians, or Fox News pundits, that this is inappropriate government interference in the free market?

Here’s another easy way to examine the claim that less government oversight will lead to prosperity. Simply examine other countries to see if the claim holds up. Take a look at the UN’s human development index to see where the US falls. Most of the top countries in the index have economic systems that modern Republicans would smear as “socialist”. And let’s not forget that one of the world’s fastest growing and most powerful economies, China has anything but a free market.

The fact of the matter is, that the health of the economy effects the livelihoods of all Americans, and as such the US government, representing the American people, has every reason to regulate powerful corporations who are legally obligated to seek profit above all else.

The examples I’ve cited above could be easy for the average American to ignore. After all, doing research and crunching numbers isn’t exactly fun, and most people don’t think seriously about any issue until it touches them personally. But now these problems are literally at our doorstep, affecting Americans in a very real way. The recession of 2008, triggered by risky and exotic financial practices following the deregulation by Clinton and Bush II, is still affecting Americans. While most of the business entities that the American taxpayer bailed out have recovered nicely, the story is different for average Americans, as we face an unemployment rate of 9.5%. It would seem clear, that what is good for Wall Street, is not necessarily good for the rest of us.

For those who are still skeptical of the need for government oversight over certain enterprises, the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico should serve to drive the point home, and for many it actually has. The basic facts are uncontroversial: lax enforcement by the government’s MMS allowed risky drilling practices that resulted in a major ecological disaster— probably the greatest ecological disaster the US has ever experienced. Ecosystems are far too complex for even the best scientists to foresee all the consequences this oil spill will have on the gulf, and we will likely be dealing with the secondary and tertiary effects for years to come. Those who would attempt to downplay the consequences of this spill as merely “dead birds” are being criminally dishonest.

And still, with this disaster affecting them personally, I witness average blue collar Americans making apologies for the oil industry— arguing with all their passion against a moratorium, and coming out strongly in favor of continuing the exact same practices that destroyed their coastline! I can understand apathy, but I am simply baffled to see so many people organize against their own self interest. It would seem that many modern Americans have been carefully trained to react against anything that can be labeled as “liberal", and to react especially harshly to any measure which can be attached to the “evil Obama”. If you listen to right wing talk radio you can hear the message over and over again: do not cooperate with the liberals, do not listen to the liberal, they will just trick you with fancy words, and they will destroy our traditional society. Instead, the conservative is taught to resist any and all things liberal, and to organize to help Republicans regain control of the government.

Thomas Frank observes this phenomenon in his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, where he examines a state comprised almost entirely of middle and working class Americans, who were at one point in history, radically organized in their own economic self-interest. Now the state is carried almost completely by a Republican party who continually acts to give tax breaks and government subsidies to the rich while cutting benefits for their income level.

The contention of Frank is that lower income Americans have been hoodwinked into the Republican party on the platform of peripheral “cultural” issues. Issues like flag burning, prayer in public schools, evolution, Christmas wars, gay marriage, and abortion have served as decades-long rallying points for lower income “conservative” Americans, who vote in lockstep for Republicans, or in some cases Blue Dog Democrats. And yet none of the progress that these people were wishing for has been made on these “cultural” issues. Instead, once these politicians have ridden these “culture war” waves into office, they pursue legislation aimed at lining the pockets of their contributors in industry.

The effects of such practices over time are evident. Since the Reagan administration, through to the present, the gap between the rich and everyone else has been steadily widening. While a small percentage of wealthy Americans have amassed fantastic fortunes in the past decades, income levels for middle class Americans has been stagnating or declining. Now many families must have two bread winners living off of borrowed money to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Contrary to the popular sentiment that Americans are lazy, the American people are actually some of the most overworked in the developed world. American workers are subject to longer work hours, lower wages, less vacation time, less benefits, and more restrictions on unionization than their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan. And yet, thanks to intense and sustained propaganda, you can walk into a blue collar bar and witness the staggering irony of watching an American working class man complain that unions, the minimum wage, and unemployment benefits are responsible for his misery.

The success of this large scale propaganda campaign to turn Americans against their interests has manifested itself in the debate over the unstoppable oil gush. As demonstrated in the email exchange I posted above, there has been a surprising backlash by too many ordinary citizens against any sort of moratorium on drilling—they would rather deepwater drilling continued unabated, with no plan in place to avoid disasters like the one they just experienced. Like drug addicts looking for their next fix, segments of the American populace are advocating for policies that may provide a sense of comfort and stability right now, but are clearly unsustainable and dangerous in the long run.

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