Horror, and I mean real, honest-to-God horror that is still there when we turn the lights on, should not be broken down into “baby steps.” Horror is something that needs to be experienced in its immense scope, so that it can stand as a lesson and a testament to folly that should never be repeated. A house burning down is horrible. The Holocaust is horror. When our behavior leads us down the wrong path, horror is the brick wall that stops us from going any further. Believe this, though: there are people who are hard at work to tear those walls down. It might be for an ideology, but more often than not, it’s money. Horror stands in the way of rich people who want to be richer. Enter Transocean, British Petroleum, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster last spring. It is important that we should recount this horror, because there are people trying desperately to erase it.
April 20th, 2010
Anchored in five thousand feet of water, about forty miles off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon was a decade-old oil rig built in Korea, prospecting for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. While it resembled a floating skyscraper, Deepwater Horizon was registered as a ship. Specifically, it was registered under a flag of convenience in the Marshall Islands. It might seem odd that a floating skyscraper drilling for oil off the coast of the United States would be flying the flag of a small island chain in the South Pacific, but this is standard operating procedure for most of the oil industry. Oil Rigs, and most merchant ships that are owned by American corporations, fly the colors of nations with lax or no safety standards, such as the Marshall Islands, Liberia, or Panama. Had Deepwater Horizon been flying a US ensign, it would have been subject to regulation and inspection by a number of federal agencies that would have surely taken issue with the lack of safety measures onboard. As the laws stood then (and now), a rig was only subject to inspection when it actually made a stop in a US port of call.
While drilling a test well on the Macondo oil field the morning of the explosion, BP opted to cancel a test of the cement bonds that could have prevented the ensuing disaster. Later congressional hearings revealed that “[t]he cement bond log would have cost the company over $128,000 to complete. In comparison, the cost of canceling the service was just $10,000. Moreover, Mr. Roth of Halliburton estimated that conducting the test would have taken an additional 9 to 12 hours.” Instead of testing the integrity of the well, and the critical blowout preventer, BP officials gathered the workers on deck to celebrate seven years without a major safety incident. This was less than twelve hours before the explosion and fire that would kill eleven men on the rig.
Around 9:45pm, on the 20th of April 2010, Deepwater Horizon hit a pocket of methane gas while drilling. The gas, mixed with mud and unbonded cement, rocketed through the five thousand feet of drilling pipe to the surface. After a few minutes of expansion on the surface of the platform, the gas was pulled into the intakes of a number of diesel generators that had not been fitted with standard safety valves. The resulting blast and fireball could be seen from over thirty-five miles away. After several secondary explosions rocked the vessel, the fire settled into to an uncontrollable inferno, killing 11 men and wounding 17 more. The rest of the crew managed to evacuate to lifeboats.
Two days later, and after a heroic effort by the US Coast Guard to contain and control the blaze, the Deepwater Horizon sank. As she went down, the rig dumped 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the water and snapped the oil pipeline off at the sea floor, allowing the pressurized crude to gush directly into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. BP released an estimate placing the rate of flow at 1,000 barrels per day. By contrast, Coast Guard estimates of the leak placed the rate of flow of crude oil at about 8,000 barrels a day. That’s about a third-of-a-million gallons. In the meantime BP “worked closely” with federal efforts to contain the spill by packing federal agencies with corporate bodies to muffle communications between the agencies and the public. From the start, the press was a persona non grata at the “incident response center” in Houma, Louisiana. By mid-May, BP agents within the Coast Guard had managed to pressure the agency to bar reporters from all “crisis areas” with a threat of five years in federal jail and tens of thousands of dollars in fines for “interfering in a clean up operation.” The definitions of “crisis area” and “interference” were left purely up to the discretion of BP officials. The President was allowed to visit the recently contaminated beaches of Louisiana for photo ops, which captured images that depicted him as subtly disappointed, possibly angry.
By mid-June, the amount of oil pouring into the waters of the Gulf was no longer estimated at BP’s initial claim of 1,000 barrels, or even the Coast Guards 8,000. Instead, international agencies who had arrived to inspect the scene had found a flow rate of over 60,000 barrels per day. That’s over two-and-a-half million gallons of oil, every day, for nearly two months. The Coast Guard, at a loss for anything else to do, began to set fire to the oil slick in an attempt to “burn it off.” Tony Hayward, CEO of BP felt the need to remind us all that the leak was actually “quite small” when compared to the vastness of the ocean. By this time, however, the oil slick could literally be seen by astronauts on the space. Tar balls and sludge had also washed up on beaches from Texas to Florida, and the seafood industry had ground to a halt over concerns of contamination.
Meanwhile, BP tried repeatedly to seal the well, always erring on the side of the “low cost” fix. They tried jamming the pipe full of mud, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the oil pressure had sent thousands of pounds of mud and cement flying up the drilling pipe to cause the explosion in the first place. When that failed, they tried to “crimp” the pipe, but the twenty-one inch steel pipe – five thousand feet underwater, spewing over two million gallons of oil a day – was unsurprisingly resistant to being pinched shut. Ideas began to be floated that sounded cartoonish at best, sinister at worst. It was proposed that a decommissioned battleship ought to be sunk on top of the pipe. An idea was also floated that a nuclear bomb could be fed down a relief well and detonated to seal the run-away leak. Finally, in late July, BP managed to successfully cut the pipe cleanly enough to install a forty ton “cap.” On July 24th, ten days before the well is officially declared to be “static,” BP released the results of their own “internal investigation” into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. They acquitted themselves completely of any negligence. Three months and four days after the incident had taken place, more than 4.9 million barrels of oil, one fifth of a billion gallons, had been blasted into the waters of the Gulf. To call it a leak is a gross understatement. It’s a bit like calling the damage to the reactor in Chernobyl a “crack.”
Do the best you can to remember this horror, because BP wants you to forget that it ever happened. They’ve got a plan to make it happen, too. It entails giving a ton of money to people in power, and a ton of bullshit to people who aren’t.
Oiling the Wheels
After the Deepwater Horizon incident, a “relief fund” of $20 billion dollars was established to be paid out to fishermen and other effected parties. This prompted Rep. Joe Barton, Republican of Texas to declare on the House floor that he was “ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy in the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown -- in this case a $20 billion shakedown ... I apologize. I do not want to live in a county where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, [it is] subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.” Be aware that Rep. Barton was completely unashamed to live in a country where he could be the single largest recipient of oil-industry money in Congress, however. His remarks were so brazen that other house Republicans actively sought to censure him for the comment, and in the end, simply forced him to apologize for his “apology.” Rep. Barton’s outburst begs an important question: How much cash does it take to buy the unswerving loyalty of an elected official, even in the face of the largest ecological disaster ever caused by gross negligence?
BP is no stranger to bribing members of governments across the globe. It might not be fair to say that they’ve refined it to an art-form, but they are certainly adept at using money to lubricate political machinery. Their exploits have frequently been brought to light by a hyper-litigious oil man from Denver named Jack Grynberg. He’s made his fortune by seeking out fraud and bribery within the oil industry, bringing charges against giants like BP and Royal Dutch Shell, and then taking his settlements in the form of stakes in their oil production. What he’s uncovered is that the oil giants, and BP in particular, have no problem dedicating financial resources to subvert governments whenever it furthers their profit making endeavors. For example, throughout the past decade, BP waged a campaign of direct bribes of officials in Kazakhstan, home of one of the planet’s largest oil and natural gas deposits. It’s estimated that BP and a subsidiary expended over $12 million dollars in bribes in order to sway the Kazahk government to issue licenses to themselves. Developing nations sell their politicians at bargain prices.
But getting government officials to grant licenses-for-bribes here in the US isn’t so easy. Or is it? Until July of last year, BP maintained at least one “ticket hotline,” operating in California that provided passes to major sports and music events. These were offered, free of charge, for politicians, their staff, and their families. Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones News investigated the hotline, and found that in the five years before it was shut down, over 1,200 tickets had been provided, and in the ten years it had been running, BP had spent over $300,000 on the program. “In March 2002, when the Sacramento Kings were locked in a playoff battle with the Los Angeles Lakers, 9 state senators and 12 state assembly members, including the speaker, pumped BP for the coveted seats. While serving as assembly speaker in 2006, Los Angeles Democrat Fabian Núñez and his family watched the Kings beat the Chicago Bulls on BP's dime. During Democrat Karen Bass' tenure as speaker between 2008 and 2010, 13 members of her staff tapped BP for 2 tickets to see Disney on Ice, Tina Turner, and Madea's Big Happy Family.” Priority was typically given to members of the state government who were directly involved in California’s energy and transportation bureaus, as well as the state’s legislative and executive branches. It’s doubtful that these tickets were ever considered to be gifts with no strings attached. They were political party-favors – soft-gloved reminders that the fun never needs to stop, as long as everyone plays their part. BP is a patron that rewards the virtue of obedience in its elected officials.
What better way to secure that loyalty than sliding money into the campaign coffers? Over the past two decades, BP has contributed over six million dollars directly to campaign funds of various politicians. Our president received more than seventy-five thousand dollars worth of campaign contributions from BP during the election cycle in 2008, more than any other candidate running for the office. If we have any curiosity as to why BP was given authority over Coast Guard assets during the response to the leak, maybe this is a good place to start inquiring. Does seventy-five to eighty thousand dollars buy the right to staff federal agencies with corporate commissars?
Now, in April of 2011, BP is looking to return to return to the Gulf. The corporation has petitioned the administration to rescind the moratorium on drilling it imposed last year, after the disaster. The timing is most likely not coincidental. The Supreme Court has recently ruled that corporations are no longer bound by a decades old law that limits their ability to contribute to political campaigns. Their 2008 contribution of a few tens-of- thousands of dollars may seem paltry when compared to the millions that are tossed around during campaign seasons, but the 2012 election is going to be an entirely different game. The spending cap has been removed, and their cash can gush into the electoral system like oil into the Gulf Stream.
It’s likely that their recent request to start drilling is a direct question to the Obama administration: “Will you kiss the ring?” How badly does Obama want an almost limitless pool of campaign funds? If he bends to the request, he’ll likely be sticking around for four more years. If not, we’ll likely have someone with an (R) tacked behind their name in the Oval Office in January of 2013.
The massive amount of money that BP dedicates to keeping politicians in line is only one component of a two part system. For the rest of us, there’s the media and a PR blitz to make us forget that anything ever happened one year ago. Plugging BP shills into every spot possible during the cleanup was the first step. They made sure that stories, like dump trucks depositing “fresh” sand onto oil-soaked beaches to make them appear pristine, got a lot little to no coverage. They intimidated the press with threats of fines and jail time, if they went anywhere near the beaches that were being re-sanded. The horror was covered up as fast as it was being revealed. Since then, the public relations arm of BP has been working non-stop to deliver both feel-good meaninglessness and outright misinformation to the American public. The drilling must inevitably recommence, and the last thing BP wants is a lot of people who can accurately recall the events of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Right now on Twitter, BP is firing off a barrage of posts that would make a person think they were a seafood company or a travel agency, not a global petrochemical concern. “’Serve the Gulf’ campaign tells consumers, ‘it’s time to eat #Alabama seafood,’” shouts one message. Another declares, “The Seabreeze Jazz Festival is right around the corner. Click here for a full lineup.” Hardly any of their communications via twitter over the past two months have had anything to do with the actual goings-on at BP. The minority of posts that do have something to do with BP generally reference the amount of cash that they’ve tossed at various Gulf coast organizations.
Those funds come with strings attached to further BP’s propaganda campaign. A number of schools in Louisiana were given “donations” by BP ranging from twenty to fifty thousand dollars in return for hosting “presentations” about the disaster. These “educational sessions” were given to students by BP representatives. In one case, children at a school in Houma, Louisiana were shown an “experiment” where cooking oil mixed with cocoa powder was pumped into an aquarium to simulate an oil leak. The BP reps giving the demonstration informed kids that the oil floats to the surface where it can be skimmed off by ships, or destroyed by dispersants. The oil that remained floating would eventually be “eaten by bacteria.”
The reality is that crude oil does not uniformly float, and international agencies have observed a layer of “hydrocarbon debris” on the ocean floor surrounding the site of the incident. Furthermore, dispersants have a toxicity of their own that is still being hotly debated, and there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that bacteria “eat” crude oil when it is released into the ecosystem. To reinforce the half-truths and outright lies of the presentation, children were awarded pens and toys emblazoned with the BP logo for “correctly” answering questions about the oil leak after the conclusion of the presentation.
Who needs historical revisionism when you can edit reality in the present tense?
Don’t Slip Up
There’s been a lot of rumination about whether or not a boycott of BP would be effective. Some people have refused to buy their gas at a BP station, but the petrochemical industry is far more ubiquitous than the brands we fill our tanks with. Chances are the plastics in your home have poured out of an oil well at some point in their production, and there’s a good chance some percentage of that plastic came from a BP source. It’s hard to boycott someone when you don’t even know what you buy from them.
The best thing we can do, for now, is remember the events as they actually happened, and shine a light on those who accept money to cover up the tragedy. Any time someone tells you that gulf seafood is safe to eat, remember that nearly two-hundred-and-ten million gallons of toxic sludge poured out into the ocean, less than a year ago. That oil had been eighteen thousand feet underground for tens, if not hundreds of millions of years, until avarice and negligence brought it to the surface. Any time a politician says something to the tune of, “drill here, drill now,” look to see who’s been dumping money into their campaign fund, and which lobbyists have been buying them lunch. Most of the people who will read this are not responsible in any way for the events April 20th, 2010, but we are certainly responsible for making sure it does not happen again. We must not allow ourselves to “get over” horror.