Less than a week after British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing what could be the worst industrial environmental disaster in U.S. history, the company announced more than $6 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2010, more than doubling profits from the same period the year before. Oil industry analyst Antonia Juhasz notes: "BP is one of the most powerful corporations operating in the United States. Its 2009 revenues of $327 billion are enough to rank BP as the third-largest corporation in the country. It spends aggressively to influence U.S. policy and regulatory oversight." The power and wealth that BP and other oil giants wield are almost without parallel in the world, and pose a threat to the lives of workers, to the environment and to our prospects for democracy.
Sixty years ago, BP was called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (AIOC). A popular, progressive, elected Iranian government had asked the AIOC, a largely British-owned monopoly, to share more of its profits from Iranian oil with the people of Iran. The AIOC refused, so Iran nationalized its oil industry. That didn't sit well with the U.S., so the CIA organized a coup d'état against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. After he was deposed, the AIOC, renamed British Petroleum, got a large part of its monopoly back, and the Iranians got the brutal Shah of Iran imposed upon them, planting the seeds of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the subsequent hostage crisis and the political turmoil that besets Iran to this day.
In 2000, British Petroleum rebranded itself as BP, adopting a flowery green-and-yellow logo, and began besieging the U.S. public with an advertising campaign claiming it was moving "beyond petroleum." BP's aggressive growth, outrageous profit and track record of petroleum-related disasters paint a much different picture, however. In 2005, BP's Texas City refinery exploded, killing 15 people and injuring 170. In 2006, a BP pipeline in Alaska leaked 200,000 gallons of crude oil, causing what the Environmental Protection Agency calls "the largest spill that ever occurred on the [Alaskan] North Slope." BP was fined $60 million for the two disasters. Then, in 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined BP an additional $87 million for the refinery blast. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: "BP has allowed hundreds of potential hazards to continue unabated. ... Workplace safety is more than a slogan. It's the law." BP responded by formally contesting all of OSHA's charges.
President Barack Obama said of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, "Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak; BP will be paying the bill." Riki Ott is not so sure. She is a marine toxicologist and former "fisherma'am" from Alaska, and was one of the first people to respond to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster. Exxon deployed an army of lawyers to delay and defeat the legal claims of the people who were physically and/or financially harmed by the Valdez spill. "What we know is that the industry does everything it can to limit its liability," she told me.
The (Mobile, Ala.) Press-Register reported that Alabama Attorney General Troy King told BP to "stop circulating settlement agreements among coastal Alabamians." Apparently, BP was requiring owners of fishing boats seeking work mitigating the spill to waive any and all rights to sue BP in the future. Despite a BP spokesperson's pledge that the waivers would not be enforced, the news report stated, "King said late Sunday that he was still concerned that people would lose their right to sue by accepting settlements from BP of up to $5,000."
Even if BP doesn't trick victims into signing away the right to sue, the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, while requiring polluters to pay the actual hard costs of the cleanup, caps the additional financial liability of a spill at just $75 million. Given that millions of people will be impacted by the spill, by the loss of fisheries and tourism, and by the cascade of impacts on related industries, $75 million is small change.
That is why Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced a bill to raise the economic-damages liability cap to $10 billion, calling the bill the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act. Riki Ott is touring New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, educating people about the toxic effects of the spill, and helping them prepare for the long fight ahead to hold BP accountable.
BP will surely continue its dirty practices, fighting accountability in the courts, in the press and on the oil-drenched beaches. BP: be prepared.