The Obama Administration has been getting very impatient with the attitude of British Petroleum (BP) company over its handling of a huge oil slick after an off-shore oil rig exploded on April 20 off the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers were killed in the explosion and the massive oil slick that resulted is now dubbed the worst environmental disaster in American history. Today, this catastrophe threatens the economic sustainability of the Gulf Coast states' seafood industry and the fragile ecosystem. It has already placed hundreds of fishermen on the unemployment line and impacted the lives of thousands of families.
President Obama's impatience is understandable given the daily revelations of BP's incompetent handling of the disaster and more and more evidence that the company cut corners and bribed American inspectors in order to return the maximum profits from its activities. More damning is the fact that these short-cut actions allowed BP to compromise worker safety, neglect essential rig maintenance, and recklessly disregarded the potential risks to the environment should an accident occur.
For example, it is now revealed that BP's sub-contractor, Deepwater Horizon, did not have a vital switch in place that served as a backup mechanism to prevent a blowout in the event of an explosion. The cost of this "acoustic switch" is about $500,000 and American inspectors looked the other way and allowed the company to operate without it. Ultimately that was a simple piece of equipment that would have saved lives.
More damning is the fact that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) that is charged with inspecting and making sure that offshore oil drilling is safe and compliant with international standards did not do its work. Their inspections fell by 41 percent between 2005 and 2009 while there was a commensurate increase in oilrigs and drilling for oil in American waters.
In June 2009 the MMS did not insist that BP be required to produce a legally mandated environmental impact study for the site where its drilling company, Deepwater Horizon, would operate even when the oversight authority clearly knew that there were risks with this site and its operations. BP knew of these risks but apparently determined that making money was more important than plugging safety holes.
These decisions led directly to the deaths of 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf. The workers killed in the BP explosion are only the latest casualties. According to data from the International Regulators Forum, from 2004 through 2009 offshore oil workers on US rigs were four times more likely to be killed in industrial accidents and 23 percent more likely to be injured than oil workers in European waters. While there were 5 "loss of well control" disasters on US drill rigs in 2007 and 2008, in five other major offshore drilling nations--the UK, Norway, Australia, and Canada--there were none. [The BP oil spill and American capitalism - WSW May 8, 2010].
And the statistics are alarming in themselves and point to a deliberate pattern of disregard for safety and the risks that oil-rig workers face in the mad rush for more and more profits by oil companies, including BP, operating in the Gulf. The Obama Administration has inherited this corrupt system that came out of the former Bush Administration. For those who keep heaping criticism on President Obama and his handling of the disaster must remember that the breakdown of the monitoring and oversight system occurred under President George Bush's watch and highlight his close historic ties to big oil.
Oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico have long operated with very little governmental oversight that reached new and dizzying heights under President Bush. The result is that today the BP disaster is just one deadly mishap on a dangerous conveyor belt waiting to happen. The number of deaths and injuries indicate that worker safety is not a top priority of oil companies because successive US Administrations have not held them accountable and responsible for the deaths and injuries. From 2001 to date there have been 69 deaths, 1,349 worker injuries and 858 fires or explosions in the Gulf.
Corporate greed and the rush to make more and more super-profits always trump worker safety. The oil companies know that for every worker who is killed or injured there are 30 or 40 more waiting to take his place. Workers are therefore an expendable commodity and death or injury are just a normal part of doing business. Money pays for loose and lax regulations as those charged with making sure that the work environment for one of the most dangerous jobs on earth is relatively safe simply rubber stamp their reports and fail to compel these companies to comply with the law and abide by standards set by the MMS.
But like the big banks and insurance companies that rob ordinary Americans blind and face no legal actions for their behavior and are rewarded with taxpayer money, large oil companies like BP can get off with impunity. BP's actions are criminal and the company should be hauled before a court of law for causing the preventable deaths of 11 workers and injuring scores of others. From all reports the company knew that it was operating in a reckless, corner-cutting manner and that a potential disaster with accompanying loss of life was a very real possibility.
The Obama Administration instead of forming a "commission or inquiry" [a useful tool governments use when they have no answers for the public on a problem and want to appear to be doing something] should be looking to bring criminal charges against BP. The Administration has the evidence and the video that BP did not want exposed. A commission is simply an exercise in fact-finding to appease public outrage. This commission will talk to BP's top brass, look at the records that it makes available and come up with a report.
The Obama commission has no teeth, no subpoena powers, and no legal authority to compel BP to come clean. It's a smoke screen the Administration uses to deflect scrutiny from its disengagement with the activities in the Gulf of Mexico and the deplorable track record of BP and others that run roughshod over the rights of workers. If President Obama is serious and angry at BP's actions then he will instruct the Justice Department to look at the company's actions with a view to making it pay financial restitution to the families of the dead workers and those injured. Nothing else makes sense. But I have a better chance of seeing a green monkey do the electric slide than BP dragged to court on criminal charges.