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05.04.2010 - 06:19PM

Category: Sustainability

It's Time to Get Beyond Petroleum


By CSRwire Contributing Writer Francesca Rheannon

With some one million gallons of oil a day spewing into the environmentally sensitive waters of the Gulf Coast, nobody is calling British Petroleum "Beyond Petroleum" anymore. The "volcano of oil" gushing from the below the seabed could be the biggest oil spill in history. Eleven lives are lost and an entire ecosystem likely destroyed for decades to come.

What a difference a couple of weeks or so makes: it wasn't too long ago that President Obama announced his intention to begin exploration for offshore drilling in environmentally sensitive regions of the Atlantic and Alaskan coastlines and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, a political peace offering to Republicans and conservative Democrats which was supposed to grease the wheels of a climate bill. It now may end up torpedoing it, doomed from the right (who will find any excuse to kill the bill), and - unless the offshore drilling provisions can be stripped from it - likely to stick in the craw of progressives.

Overcoming three decades of prohibitions, Obama assured the American people at the time, "It turns out by the way that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." Maybe he got that idea from BP itself, which claimed in its 2009 environmental impact statement for the now erupting well that it would be virtually impossible for it to fail. BP CEO Tony Hayward was heard on NPR declaring that this disaster was a kind of Murphy's Law-like occurrence nobody could possibly have foreseen.

Except Norway and Brazil, that is. Those two countries mandate use of a remote control shutoff switch that could have averted the disaster. But BP decided not to spend the $500,000 to make sure that Deepwater Horizon, the subcontractor, install it. U.S. regulators don't require the remote-control device on offshore rigs -- no surprise in a nation that has regarded government regulation as anathema since Reagan's "morning in America." All of a sudden, though, even Republicans are waking up to smell the coffee: The Wall Street Journal reported May 4 that Representative Darrell Issa (R-Cal) asked the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate why the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) didn't require use of the remote shutoff switch.

After the spill, Mr. Hayward rhetorically asked fellow executives in his London office, "What the hell did we do to deserve this?" The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind pushing the oil into the Gulf's erstwhile pristine beaches. BP lobbied hard against moves to make the remote cutoff switch mandatory. And that's part of a pattern of putting profits ahead of safety that has led to record fines against the company in recent years and even jail time (suspended) for criminal activity.

BP's record eerily echoes another recent disaster caused by lax attention to safety by a fossil fuel company: Massey Coal's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. That company racked up some 1300 citations for safety violations in the years leading up to the accident -- many involving the same failure to vent methane that led to the loss of 29 miners in April.

Unfortunately, the fines against BP - huge though they may seem to us mere mortals (in the low billions) - appear to be slaps on the wrist for a company that posted record profits of earnings of $5.6 billion for the first quarter this year alone, more than double the profit during the same quarter a year ago.

But with investigations being promised in Congress and the future of offshore oil drilling coming into doubt, the business model that fueled those profits might be under threat.

For one thing, the damage to BP's reputation - can it ever again call itself "Beyond Petroleum" with a straight face? - is incalculable and has already been reflected in a plunge in the company's stock value. And the company is hemorrhaging on the other end, too, spending some $6 million a day so far on the Gulf oil spill, with no end in sight and years of legal claims and government fines in the making.

Senator Ben Nelson of Florida, to whose state the flood of oil is headed, is calling for a halt to plans for offshore drilling. So far, he's not being backed up by the leaders of his party or Barack Obama. But how long they can keep up the brave face is an open question. Dissension is growing in the party over the issue: while Mary Landriu of Louisiana made a stunningly tone-deaf plea that the drilling must go on (as her constituents face the loss of livelihood from the imminent devastation of the fishing and tourism industries on Louisiana's Gulf Coast,) Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) argued for a halt, pointing out that drilling offshore from Cape May threatens economic, as well as environmental disaster. "It simply does not make sense to play Russian roulette with the coastal economies of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland," he said.

Like the Massey Coal disaster, the BP oil disaster is a cautionary tale about overconfidence in willingness of companies to police themselves rather than come under robust oversight by government. And it resonates with the lax oversight of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms that led to the financial meltdown. The warning is clear: casino capitalism, whether playing with investors' savings and the financial stability of the economy, with workers' lives, or with the ecosystems upon which whole regions depend, has got to go. The notion that capitalism can depend on the private market and abnegate public power is now as bankrupt as Lehmann Brothers.

But there's a larger warning in this disaster. If BP had been really committed to moving "beyond petroleum" into clean energy; if it had put its massive resources behind wind, solar and other forms of clean energy instead of focusing on opening new deepwater oil wells, this disaster would never have happened. If Massey Energy had gotten out of the coal business and invested instead in clean energy, 29 workers might still be alive -- and working on building windmills or solar panels. If Wall Street had focused on investing in the real economy instead of short term profits of casino capitalism - and a clean energy one at that - millions of Americans would be happily employed, tax receipts to governments would be up, the nation would have the money to invest in health, education, housing and the environment, and our children's future would be more assured.

It's time to stop Burning Petroleum and go Beyond it.



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