Saturday, May 01, 2010

On Human Nature, Safety Critical Industries and Big, Big Money.

I’ve been really suspicious about the commercials that British Petroleum has been running on TV lately. You know the ones, where there are a bunch of “everyday Americans”, talking about the need for “common sense” energy. One of the things that is always mentioned is, of course, drilling for more oil domestically, which means off-shore oil wells. I have always felt that these actors, who were obviously paid and have rehearsed their lines, would include potential energy sources such as biofuels and wind farms as sops. Those are just throwaway lines to make BP look like they care about diversity. I wonder how many wind farms and biofuel projects that BP really has going right now?

No, their main goal was to open up America’s coastal waters for new oil drilling. That’s the entire point of those commercials. BP couldn’t give a crap about developing wind or solar farms. Those produce electricity, which, unless I am severely mistaken, BP doesn’t market.

BP and all their Big Oil buddies were succeeding in their plans. President Obama had already stated that his administration was opening many areas in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to more drilling. “Drill, Baby, Drill” goes the refrain. Sarah Palin’s most outstanding accomplishment in the modern lexicon. Thanks to these commercials, and a whole lot of money funneled to politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), Big Oil had won. They were getting their prize, and they essentially didn’t have to do much more than that.

That is, they had won until BP shot itself, along with the rest of the country, in the proverbial foot by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, which killed 11 people. That would have been bad enough all by itself, but now we are left with an open spigot spewing out crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Unless a super-human effort is made to stop it, the resulting slick will foul the beaches of Louisiana and Mississippi within days. Current news stories indicate that the entire pocket of oil might just gush out into the Gulf before the geniuses at BP can figure out how to cap the wound.

I didn’t trust BP before this accident, and I certainly don’t trust them now. The company apparently refused to include a half million dollar safety device that is designed to stop this specific accident from happening. Brazil apparently mandates such safety devices for drilling around their country. Shell Oil apparently includes such devices on their wells, even though the U.S. government doesn’t mandate they be used. The story I saw said that BP didn’t include such a safety device because it was too expensive.

I would bet that BP easily spent a half million bucks on lobbying congressmen. There’s something more than just saving every single dollar that they can. BP and a whole lot of other companies in many other safety-critical industries (such as coal mining) refuse to include basic safety features for their operations and their employees just because they can, because they don’t want anyone to tell them that they must. It is against their principles. No one is going to tell them how to run their business! And that includes, in their minds, including a bunch of unnecessary stuff related to safety that would only slow things down, even though the money and effort spent wouldn’t amount to a drop in the bucket of their overall operations. And besides, what could happen? Trust us. We have it all under control…

I believe that’s what’s behind this. All the news in the last few months about industrial accidents has all include information about the company’s efforts to avoid government oversight and regulation. All of them. The case against the owner of the Sago coal mine in West Virginia is well documented. It was a matter of principle for the owners. They were not, under any circumstances, going to let the government tell them what the must do. Period. I have seen reports of the same thing going on with this and other BP drilling rigs. There was a recent explosion of a Tesoro petroleum refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven people. That plant had a history of safety violations. It is also an unfortunate fact that companies with a history of safety violations, like BP, Sago and Tesoro, always seem to be able to fight against the fines and required fixes, where they end up paying chump change. The result is that nothing happens. Until something really terrible happens, like an oil platform explosion, a coal mine explosion or a petroleum refinery explosion.

That’s how it goes these days. These huge corporations are the ones that actually run the country, given their army of lawyers and lobbyists and a sea of cash they are quite willing to spend on fighting regulations and oversight. They don’t mind spending millions, even billions, to fight against regulations when what they are fighting against would seem to be less expensive in the long run.

This is a matter of principle for them, these “giants of industry.” Nothing is going to change in this country until we have a very large change of perspective. In the 80’s, this was referred to as a “paradigm shift.” We don’t use that term anymore. But that is what we need. But given human nature and the huge amounts of money we are talking about, there is almost a zero chance of that happening.

Part 2 of this later.

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