What You Need to Know About the Gulf Oil Disaster

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  • By Barbara O’Brien

    Every day, news about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico gets worse. This week we learned that a large section of the Gulf could become a “dead zone” as oil-eating microorganisms proliferate and suck oxygen out of the water.

    Whether anything positive could somehow come from this disaster remains to be seen. But ecologically conscious people should be aware of and involved in the political response to the spill. Because if you aren’t, the people whose greed, ignorance and negligence led to the disaster will be the ones creating the “solutions.”

    For example, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is urging the federal government to allow offshore oil drilling to continue, in spite of the damage being done to Mississippi’s beaches. Note that Barbour was once a Washington lobbyist for the oil industry.

    For years, conservatives have pushed issues that were and are central to the Deepwater Horizon spill. One is “drill, baby, drill,” or turning the planet inside out to suck up every last drop of oil before investing in alternative energies or conservation.

    Another is deregulation, or the belief that industries must be freed from interference by government regulation, including environmental and consumer protections. For example, already a few politicians are calling for deregulation of the oil industry, as if government caused British Petroleum to mismanage its oil rig. Some pundits are saying the disaster proves government regulations “don’t work.”

    The truth is that the federal agency responsible for inspecting offshore oil rigs did not do its job. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) was not conducting the monthly inspections at Deepwater Horizon that its own policies required. It appears BP was running the rig without adhering to all safety procedure.  Critics say the MMS is staffed by “industry friendly” people who don’t believe government regulations should get in the way of making money.

    Regarding the cost of repairing the damage, there are two kinds of cost — environmental cleanup and economic damages. The environmental cleanup part is relatively straightforward, although there will be a fight to be sure it gets done. In 2024, a full 20 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, 16,000 gallons of oil remained in the intertidal zones of Prince William Sound.

    The more contentious issue will be paying for the economic damages. These include revenue lost to fishing and tourism businesses and income lost by their employees. The federal Oil Pollution Act written into law after the Exxon Valdez spill caps an oil company’s liability for economic damages at only $75 million in the case of an oil spill caused by accident.

    And this brings us to another issue pushed hard by conservatives — “tort reform.” Tort “reformers” want to change personal liability law to protect industries from being sued by people they injure. This campaign was begun in the 1980s by big tobacco companies facing lawsuits from lung cancer sufferers. It was joined by asbestos manufacturers being sued to pay for employees’ mesothelioma treatments. More industries followed suit.

    Democrats in Congress have proposed raising the oil spill liability cap to $10 billion, although this could probably only be applied to future spills. But Republicans, long the champions of “tort reform,” strongly oppose the change.

    The cap issue may be moot if investigation shows criminal negligence on BP’s part. But already the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been calling for putting cleanup and damages costs on the backs of taxpayers. And this week House Minority Leader John Boehner concurred, although the subsequent uproar caused him to walk his comments back.

    In November, the U.S. will be holding midterm elections. At the very least, find out where candidates in your state stand on these issues before you vote. And some faxes and phone calls to your congress critters wouldn’t hurt.


    Barbara O’Brien is a long-time political blogger and activist who writes for several websites, including her own blog, The Mahablog, and Mesothelioma Law and Politics. She also is the Guide to Buddhism for About.com.

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    One Comment

    1. Posted August 6, 2024 at 8:30 | Permalink

      Corexit, the chemical dispersant, is more toxic than the oil it’s sprayed on.

      About 2 million gallons of the dispersant have now been sprayed across the dead zone, eliminating slicks on the surface and suspending all those millions of barrels of oil in three dimensions, thus hiding the problem and making it impossible to remove the oil.