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Tomgram: Mark Engler, Paying Oil's True Cost

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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I won't claim it was the first time in all these months, just the first I noticed. On Monday, my hometown paper had no mention of the Gulf of Mexico, BP, or what we've come to call its disastrous "spill," though that word hardly catches the dimensions of what happened. On Tuesday, the catastrophe that filled front pages and topped the TV news month after month returned to the paper as a reporter-less seven-paragraph piece, headlined "Relief Well Nears Point of Intercept," and tucked away at the bottom of page 15 (with a credit line reading only, "by The New York Times"). This was, of course, just a week after, as the piece put it, "a 'static kill,' or 'top kill' cemented the runaway well."

Runaway no more. Now, only the story is running away.

Last week, the government also announced -- and this was front-page news in the Times-- that 4.9 million runaway barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf since April, and that, according to a government report,all but 26% of it was now miraculously gone. The news in the headlines seemed rosy indeed. Almost a frog-turns-into-prince happy ending. Of course, given the strange, collusive relationship between the Obama administration and BP in the Gulf, including suppressing or discrediting scientific research on and media coverage of the spill, keeping key assessments of damage from the public, all sorts of lingering unanswered questions, and the low-ball figures both the administration and BP have repeatedly released since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, these should hardly be treated as gospel numbers. That they should not, however, was only a page 16 follow-up story in the Times; and for more startling figures -- that, for instance,closer to half of the spewed oil may remain in the Gulf -- you needed to look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the government and BP were reportedly close to an agreement on a "clean up and compensation fund" that would, curiously enough, be pegged to that company's oil revenues from the Gulf or, as the Wall Street Journalput it, "that would give both sides an incentive to continue production in the Gulf... [and] would represent a new level of interaction between BP and the federal government." BP's new chief operating officer Doug Suttles even briefly suggested that the company might return to the same reservoir of oil and take another shot at drilling there. But no matter, unless the capped well were to blow again, we're obviously at one of those 24/7 to 0/7 moments that seem increasingly the essence of media coverage of any subject.

Not so fast, though. Mark Engler,TomDispatch regular and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy, wants us to consider the real damage and real cost to our society from Big Oil's predations. (By the way, the image accompanying Engler's piece, "BP's Black Gold," comes from a series of collages on water issues by Phyllis Ewen, an artist whose work I particularly admire. Click on it to make it bigger. In addition, for a TomCast audio interview with Engler click here or, to download it to your iPod,here.)Tom

The Gulf at the Gas Station
Can We Calculate the True Cost of Our Dependence on Oil?

By Mark Engler

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This might be an opportune time to make a disclosure: I am a BP shareholder. Admittedly, I've never attended the company's annual meeting, and if I did, I would have very little weight to throw around.

I own two shares of BP stock. I received my stake in the company as a Christmas gift in 1989, when I was 14 years old. The previous June, I had taken a "summer enrichment" course in the Des Moines public schools, designed as an introduction to the world of business. The teacher gave each of us in the class a modest hypothetical budget to invest in the stock market.

Earnest young capitalists, we made our picks and then followed the quotes in the morning paper. I invested heavily in Amoco and finished the summer feeling that my portfolio had done quite well. As a result, my younger brother decided that I should receive a real piece of the enterprise that was once John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. He conspired with my mom to get me an Amoco share for the holidays.

I've watched the oil industry as an interested party ever since. In 1998, my Amoco stock split, turning my one share into two. Then, a few months later, the company was acquired by BP. This "oil mega-merger," as the BBC called it, gave me a stake in yet another energy titan. It also allowed the combined corporation to shed 6,000 jobs, prompting its new chief executive, Sir John Browne of BP, to confidently assure the press that "he hoped the merger will increase pre-tax profits of the two partners by 'at least' two billion dollars by the end of 2000."

The merger proved profitable indeed. Over time, the price of my stock nearly doubled. I received dividends every three months, usually of around 60 cents per share. And by the mid-2000s, BP was making some $20 billion per year in profits. The numbers looked good.

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Of course, these are not the only numbers to consider. In fact, in the wake of BP's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they don't seem like the right numbers at all. It's time for a different accounting: What has that catastrophic spill cost our society? What price do we pay for our dependence on oil? How do we measure these things?

Costs of Business

When I first began receiving Amoco's annual reports, they featured photos that celebrated robust industrial capabilities, like multicolored sunsets behind fields of horsehead oil pumps in Texas. These days, there's still some of that, but the reports tend to have more shots of solar panels, white windmills, and smiling school children (our future). Someone looking at the annual review the company sent me in 2001, for instance, might have been fooled by the photos of lush, palm-heavy landscapes in Indonesia, California, and Trinidad into thinking that it was a mailing from Conservation International.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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