The BP Oil Spill: Profits First, People Last

For seven weeks, millions of gallons of oil have been flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. British Petroleum, the oil company drilling the well when it exploded, refuses to allow accurate measurements of how much oil is leaking out. Official estimates are around 40,000 barrels per day while many scientists think it is as high as 110,000 barrels per day, possibly even one million. Depending on the calculations, an oil spill the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is happening every four days or every 24 hours. Without a doubt, this is the worst oil spill in U.S. history, possibly in the history of the world.

The impact from this spill is horrific. Eleven workers already died when the oilrig exploded. There have been reports of fisherman dying from the toxins in Corexit, the chemicals used by BP to thin out the oil. The oil is already hitting hundreds of miles of seashore in the Gulf. The entire fishing industry along much of the Gulf coast has been shutdown by BP. Fishermen aren’t even allowed to take their boats out. Wetlands, bird sanctuaries, marshes, marine life are getting covered in oil. Birds and sea life are turning up dead, completely coated in oil. As hurricane season approaches, the disaster is expected to only get worse.

Estimates of the economic costs of the spill, from clean up to job losses, to the shut down of the fishing industry, to the crash of the tourist industry, and so on, are as high as 1.3 trillion dollars. That’s not including the permanent damage to the local environment and animal life.

The damages from this spill will never be addressed. Current U.S. law sets a cap on how much money an oil company can be fined in an oil spill at $75 million. That is about one day’s worth of profits for an oil company. Some politicians are trying to increase that amount to $10 billion. This is still only a tiny fraction of the total damages, and a slap in the face as BP is prepared to pay out about $10 billion in stock dividends to top shareholders this month.

For oil companies, things like devastating oil spills, huge explosions, and dying workers are just part of the game of profits. Over 30 years ago, in 1979, a different oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, called the Ixtoc 1. It leaked over 30,000 barrels per day and lasted over ten months. The response then looks no different from the response now. The politicians pretended to act tough against the oil companies. The legislators promised to carry out some investigative review of off-shore drilling. And the oil companies paid a small fine before continuing right where they left off.

Oil companies have been responsible for hundreds of oil spills since 1979 and nothing has changed. New reports have just been leaked by former BP employees showing a constant history of safety and environmental violations. Dozens of safety complaints by workers went ignored, and workers were threatened with firing if they spoke out against any problems. The reports show a constant pattern of BP failing to maintain key equipment or saving money to skip maintenance. BP would ignore broken warning systems, broken blow out preventers, failed gas detections. All of these violations could have prevented this recent oil spill. These were violations that the federal government was well aware of but chose to ignore.

What we’re seeing unfold around this oil spill is just business as usual. Profits are more important than the planet, more important than people’s lives, more important than animal life, more important than our futures. The politicians protect the interests of the corporations and perhaps pay lip service to the effects on working people. And meanwhile we’re expected to shut up and deal with it. It couldn’t be any clearer that their business as usual has nothing to do with what we need in our lives.