By Jesse Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –
(NNPA) - The deepening crisis in the Gulf Coast caused President Barack Obama to amend his Memorial Day weekend plans; plus make several trips to the disaster area. He landed in Louisiana to tour the devastation amid frustrated complaints that his administration has responded too slowly and has been weak in its pressure on British Petroleum (BP) to halt what is being called the largest oil spill in the nation's history.
“We expect that frustration and anger to continue until we solve the problem,''said President Obama during his May 28 speech at Grand Isle. He still was unsure whether the “top kill” method will halt the ecological disaster.
The visit was the president's second trip to the region since BP's offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded over a month ago on April 20, killing 11 and triggering a massive oil spill. It is estimated that this oil spill has surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.
According to the White House, the purpose of the trip was for the president to meet with local officials and hear their ideas. But this crisis has some analysts zeroing in on what they call a systemic history of corporate criminal behavior and negligence by government to fully hold these companies accountable.
“BP is a habitual criminal offender and cannot be trusted. The fact they were even allowed to manage this oil spill up to this point in the Gulf is horrendous. The company has one of the worst track records of any oil company operating in America,” Tyson Slocum, energy policy program director of the progressive group Public Citizen, told The Final Call.
At Final Call press time, a BP press release reported that the cost of the response as of May 28 was about $930 million, including the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to Gulf states, claims paid and federal costs.The company says that 26,000 claims have been filed and 11,650 payments have already been made and over 96,000 calls have been made to the help line. Experts have estimated that the rate of oil spill into the Gulf could reach as high as4.2 million gallons (100,000 barrels) a day.
“We cannot let bureaucracy and red tape delay our action while oil hits our wetlands week after week,” said Louisiana Gov.Bobby Jindal. “More than 100 miles of our shoreline has been impacted by the oil spill. That is more than the entire sea coastline of Mississippi and Alabama combined,” said Gov. Jindal.
BP officials have said the company “will pay all necessary response costs and is committed to paying legitimate claims for other loss and/or damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon incident.”
“The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. As far as I'm concerned, BP is responsible for this horrific disaster, and we will hold them fully accountable on behalf of the United States as well as the people and communities victimized by this tragedy,” said President Obama at a May 27 press conference.
President Obama alsoordered a halt to drilling operations at all 33 deep-water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico for six months or until a commission completes its task. Rigs that are alreadydrillingwill have to stop and others that were preparing to drill will have to stop those preparations.
According to the U.S. State Dept., some 17 countries have offered assistance, including Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Croatia, France, Germany,Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, theUnited Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. But no approval has been made by the U.S.
Lack of corporate transparency
“BP is as transparent as oil about the disaster. BP has consistently misled the public about how much oil is gushing from the well. BP must be held accountable and should be subject to permanent sanctions and criminal charges against executives,” said Slocum of Public Citizen.
"It is clear that Obama's administration responded too slowly. He needs to fire BP and put this under full federal control. The solutions to this are difficult but he made a mistake entrusting BP with handling this,” he continued.
In a letter to BP, Rep.Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.) and Rep.Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said company investigators failed to keep lawmakers thoroughly informed in a series of briefings about the company's abrupt decision to use a type of drill casing that was prone to cause more leaks.
“This raises the possibility that BP's internal investigation is not examining the consequences of BP's own decisions and conduct,” the two lawmakers said in the letter. Waxman chairs the Energy Committee and Stupak is chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
“Mounting evidence shows that BP was negligent. Firsthand accounts describe BP managers proceeding with work to cap the well, even though they were informed that the integrity of the blowout preventer had been compromised,” said Slocum.
Corporate Gangsters on Capitol Hill
Public Citizen and other progressive groups have been beating the drum for decades about the free ride corporations get when it comes to being held responsible for acts that cause physical, economical and environmental damage.
Slocum believes the government is unjust in its prosecution of corporations and executives when compared to actions taken against everyday citizens.
“We should have seen it coming. BP was under criminal probation at the time of the disaster for felony violation of U.S. environmental laws. The government needs to think about the way it punishes corporations because we treat individual offenders harsher than we do these corporate criminals,” said Slocum.
According to research by Public Citizen, in just the last few years, BP has pled guilty to two crimes and paid over $730 million in fines and settlements to the federal government, state governments andin civil lawsuit judgments for environmental crimes, willful neglect of worker safety rules, and penalties for manipulating energy markets.
BP paid the two largest fines in OSHA history—$87.43 millionand$21.36 million—for negligence that led to the deaths of 15 workers and injured 170 others in a March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas, according to data compiled by Public Citizen.
“The American people should be very concerned and outraged that these corporate criminals keep getting away with these crimes with only fees. The government needs to start punishing them by putting executives in handcuffs,” said Slocum.
Although BP has vowed to cover all related costs due to the spill, federal law currently caps oil companies' liability at $75 million per spill. Democrats want to raise the cap to $10 billion.
“I don't think BP's words are anything to rely upon,” said Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “By lifting the cap unlimitedly, whoever is determined to be beyond BP, the responsible party, will also be held responsible,” said Menendez.
“In any case, cash compensation for economic harms caused—while necessary—doesn't bring back destroyed ecosystems and does little to mitigate the company's culpability for not preventing the blowout in the first place,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
“BP needs more than just a financial slap on the wrist, which is what it will get if the $75 million liability cap remains in place. These oil companies are allowed to destroy people's lives and murder workers. That's a slap in the face to the American people,” said Slocum.
According to its annual report, BP made a profit of $17 billion last year, onrevenue of $246 billion. First quarter profits in 2010 were over $6 billion. Based upon data collected by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, BP has positioned itself to combat the foreseen scrutiny from this spill by financially backing U.S. lawmakers and keeping a strong lobbying arm intact.
An online report posted on the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site shows that during the 2008 election cycle, individuals and political action committees associated with BP contributed half a million dollars to federal candidates—40 percent being Democrats. President Obama was reported to be the top recipient of BP-related donations during the 2008 cycle with $71,000 collected.
The center also says BP handed out $16 million to lobby and influence legislation in 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, BP had already spent over $3.5 million on lobbying efforts in D.C., trailing only ConocoPhillips in the top oil and gas interest groups. The entire oil and gas industry reported $169 million in total lobbying expenditures in 2009.
BP was instrumental in lobbying for the American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009, which allows increased oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, in areas closer to shore than current law allows. The company also lobbied for the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2009 and the Clean Water Restoration Act, according the Center.
Phone calls made to BP were not returned.
Environmental damage and future problems
With globs of thick, gooey petroleum balls washing ashore along the south Louisiana coast, marine biologists are beginning to prepare studies to monitor how the spill will impact the gulf longterm. Scientists are expecting a lot of animals and plant life to die.
“We're in uncharted territory,” said Steve Murawski, an adviser with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's helping to assess the damage caused by the spill.
“The federal response to protect our marshes is a failure,” said Sen.David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana. “Just look at their response to our emergency dredging barrier island plan—weeks of foot-dragging before approving two percent of it so they can study it further over more precious weeks and months.”
The oil spill has nearly crippled the normal shrimping season which has been largely brought to a halt due to government-ordered closures. According to a news report, several restaurants in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida have already sued BP and its partners.
Public Citizen wants to send a clear message to BP by calling on the American people to boycott its gas and retail store products. “Don't spend a cent of your hard-earned money to feed the bottom line of the corporation responsible for the worst oil spill in our nation's history,” the group urges.
They launched an online Beyond BP petition and have gathered over 14,000 signatures of support from those who have pledged to boycott the oil giant.
Said Slocum, “Government regulators should have protected us as citizens but they didn't. So this is a peaceful way of channeling our anger. We want to hit BP in the pocketbook. People should be concerned about the practices of these convicted corporate criminals."