Saturday morning I got a call from my friend in Boston, a zany PhD student finishing his studies at MIT. We recounted our lives since the last call, and conversation drifted to current events and the BP oil spill. We compared the physical damages from the spill to a terrorist attack. Quite suddenly, my friend asked, "What's the difference between British Petroleum and Terrorists?"
I thought for a moment. "Intent," I answered.
British Petroleum did not intend to spill gobs of oil into the Gulf: they care about people, and would never maliciously hurt anyone. Or would they? Long after I hung up the phone, I began thinking about the words a roommate had said while working Valero, the largest oil refiner in the United States.
"If there is one company bound to have another accident," the roommate assured, "it's British Petroleum. They have no regard for safety, and have a poor track record." This was 2005. Down in Texas, a major explosion on March 23 killed 15 workers and injuring over 170 others. Since the accident, BP has paid $50 million in environmental fines, yet made over $80 billion in profit, after taxes.
Now misfortune strikes BP again, this time in the Gulf of Mexico, with exponentially worse environmental damage. CEO Tony Hayward will go on television and apologize. If he borrows a technique from Toyota's chairman, Hayward might shed a tear or two for dramatic effect. Recall the last major American oil spill in 1989. As a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster, Exxon Mobile was ordered to pay 4.3 billion in damages. If BP's fine is anything similar, they will have a minor setback in profits, perhaps paying a quarter years worth, after taxes.
What a great racket. Rape the earth and make obscene profits, but expect occasional disaster. Pay a penance, repeat the process. Worried about your company's name? Hide dirty deeds in subsidiaries like Enron, or change the name altogether like Philip Morris to Altria. American will forget and forgive.
Worse than forgiving avarice is misreading it. What if terrorists decided to quit shoe bombs and infiltrate oilrigs? They could feign incompetence and set off a series of "accidents," leading to economic and ecological disaster. Is there is any difference between the terrorists and BP's destructive consequences? BP's mal intent is an incidental by-product of relentless greed rather than an end goal, but does that make the Gulf disaster any less egregious? The difference is intent, but judging BP's behavior, that distinction becomes fuzzy. If terrorists had caused the explosion in the Gulf, they would be tried and executed. Big Oil just gets fined.
Obviously, another token fine is not enough. Imposing a strong Carbon Tax is the best way to deal with Big Oil, crippling its economic power over time. The tax would wean America off its devastating addiction to fossil fuels and encourage rapid growth in clean energy. Without American demand, after all, BP would be absent from the Gulf entirely, multimillion gallon oil spill included.