Deepwater Horizon: Imperialism cannot stop polluting the world

Scale of the catastrophe

On 20 April BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, based in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, killing eleven personnel and unleashing vast quantities of oil into the Atlantic.  BP’s own fictitious estimates of the quantities involved suggested a relatively minor leak, amounting to some 42,000 gallons a day; by early May even BP’s own officials were forced to concede that in fact as many as 2.5 million gallons could be released each day, whilst industry specialists characterised the catastrophe as not so much a simple leak as a volcanic event. (See Tom Eley, ‘Obama Sheltered BP’s Deepwater Horizon Rig from Regulatory Requirement’, 6 May, www.globalresearch. ca/PrintArticle.php?articleId=19027).

Nobody has yet been able to set a credible limit upon the scale of this catastrophe, given that every effort to staunch the flood of oil has met with failure and that the ultimate direction of the vast toxic plume depends on weather conditions and oceanic currents over which nobody has any control.  One moment Florida is put on alert for the spill to make landfall, the next it is Cuba that is preparing for the worst. 

Unlike earlier disasters like the Exxon Valdez, where the spill happened within an enclosed stretch of water close to a well-defined shoreline, the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred far out in the Atlantic and initially (by 12 May) contaminated the system of tiny islands and marshland ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, only subsequently (by 23 May) spreading 65 miles up the Louisiana coast.  Rather than a shocking but singular contamination event, what has been set in motion is effectively a war of attrition with no end in sight: whilst a 3 June report from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research warns of thousands of miles of Atlantic coastline contaminated even before the summer is out, some scientists suggest there will be a series of “rolling skirmishes” going on for months or years, long after the flow of oil is blocked.  (Encyclopaedia of Earth, ‘The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’,

In addition to the massive threat posed to marine life, livelihoods from fishing, catering and tourism are being wiped out.  Some have even suggested that the geological forces unleashed by the botched drilling could have a radical effect on the direction and temperature of oceanic currents, resulting in a dramatic cooling of the European landmass. 

Who is to blame?

Imperialism is to blame for this disaster.  We have this on the authority of no less than the President of the United States of America, who has increasingly been obliged to dish the dirt on BP’s criminal disregard for safety regulations, public welfare and the natural environment.  The leader of the world’s most wealthy and most dangerous imperialist power was forced into this attack upon an outstanding flagship of monopoly capitalism as the only way in which he could dodge the charge that he was facing “his own Katrina”, like Bush before him.  To have persisted with his administration’s initial strategy of collusion and cover-up would have risked losing whatever credibility he still retains as a “champion of the underdog”.  Instead, he belatedly changed tack and unleashed a war of words against BP, emphasising the multinational’s British origins.  Naturally this attempt to save Obama’s own populist skin and to take the heat off the capitalist system in general – instead reserving blame for British imperialism in particular – then cracked open a rich seam of defensive chauvinist bile on this side of the Atlantic, fulminating against Obama’s supposed hostility to Britain.  As the overproduction crisis worsens, the fault lines begin opening up between even the closest imperialist allies.

Yet the irony is that the Obama administration initially did all it could to protect BP, obscuring the scale and character of the catastrophe and colluding with BP’s own cover-up.

And even now, despite the sound and fury emanating from both the Oval Office and the congressional hearings, affairs are still being conducted on a “gentleman’s agreement” basis, with BP agreeing to stump up $20bn worth of compensation – a small fraction of BP’s total wealth and little more than a token gesture given estimates in excess of a trillion dollars for the eventual probable scale of the damage – and with still no sign of criminal proceedings against this serial polluter.

Cover up 

Sources in the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told journalists soon after the explosion that Obama and BP were working together to hide the scale of the disaster and limit BP’s liability for the resulting damage.  Once the size of the catastrophe meant it could no longer be ignored, Homeland Security stepped in, conveying the impression that the situation was at last being taken seriously but also conveniently putting a “national security” block on media coverage.  When the Army Corps of Engineers requested access to satellite photos of the oil slick, NASA turned it down.  It was only when National Geographic somehow got hold of some pictures and posted them on their website that at least a fraction of the necessary data was revealed. (See Wayne Madsen, ‘The Cover-up: BP’s Crude Politics and the Looming Environmental Mega-Disaster’, 9 May, Article .php?articleId=19068). The Coast Guard service was reportedly denying the press access to areas affected by contamination, in accordance with orders from BP itself, and fishermen and contractors hired to clean up the spill were under pressure not to talk to journalists (Brian Merchant, 25 May, ‘Masking the Extent of the Disaster: The Worst of the Gulf Oil Spill has not been Revealed’, 

However vigorously Obama now beats the drum against BP in public, his administration remains wary of doing the most obvious thing: prosecuting BP for criminal negligence. No matter that BP already pleaded guilty to a felony after its Texas City refinery blew up in 2005 killing 15 workers and injuring another 170, and did so again after the two massive Alaskan oil leaks in 2006 resulting from BP’s failure to spot and rectify corroded pipe work. To launch a full-scale criminal justice assault on a key monopoly capitalist player over such a high-stakes environmental disaster as Deepwater, whilst promising immediate populist returns, could run the risk of putting in the dock the criminally exploitative nature of all imperialism, not of the British variety alone.  So it is that, at time of writing, despite an ever accumulating weight of evidence of BP’s reckless disregard for safety, there has yet to be a criminal prosecution for the Deepwater Horizon case.

And even if the heat on Obama reaches the point where such a prosecution becomes unavoidable, there has been so much time already for tampering with crime-scene evidence and leaning on witnesses that hopes of a just outcome would be thin indeed.  BP’s history of intimidating hostile witnesses and whistle-blowers, is well documented:

In one case, BP’s CEO of Alaskan operations hired a former CIA expert to break into the home of a whistleblower, Chuck Hamel, who had complained of conditions at the pipe’s tanker facility. BP tapped his phone calls with a US congressman and ran a surveillance and smear campaign against him. When caught, a US federal judge said BP’s acts were ‘reminiscent of Nazi Germany’.  This was not an isolated case. Captain James Woodle, once in charge of the pipe’s Valdez terminus, was blackmailed into resigning the post when he complained of disastrous conditions there. The weapon used on Woodle was a file of faked evidence of marital infidelity” (29 May, Greg Palast, ‘Smart Pig: BP’s Other Spill this Week’,

Another consideration staying Washington’s hand might also be that BP happens to supply the US military with 80% of its fuel requirement, so closely bound together are US and British arms and oil interests (see Jason Leopold, 29 May, ‘Why Isn’t BP Under Criminal Investigation?’,  Indeed, any prosecution of “British” BP for its criminal behaviour could hardly fail to implicate a very American company, Halliburton, as a criminal accomplice. It turns out that the same company which has feasted on the contracts corruptly awarded it for services to imperialism in occupied Iraq has also been making a killing supplying the cementation process required by deep sea drilling technology.   

“[W]herever there’s a national tragedy involving oil, Cheney’s offshore company Halliburton is never far afield. In fact, stay tuned; Halliburton may emerge as the primary villain in this caper. The blow out occurred shortly after Halliburton completed an operation to reinforce drilling hole casing with concrete slurry. This is a sensitive process that, according to government experts, can trigger catastrophic blowouts if not performed attentively. According to the Minerals Management Service, 18 of 39 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico since 1996 were attributed to poor workmanship injecting cement around the metal pipe. Halliburton is currently under investigation by the Australian government for a massive blowout in the Timor Sea in 2005 caused by its faulty application of concrete casing” (see Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 5 May, ‘Sex, Lies and Oil Spills’,

In point of fact, Halliburton finished off its concreting job on Deepwater just twenty hours before the fatal blow-out.

Another powerful reason for Obama to want the whole mess brushed under the carpet was that it threatens to disabuse the US public of the idea that his “green” presidency signals a crucial break with the oil-fixated, neo-con legacy of the Bush/Cheney years.  Following adverse public reaction to oil spills off the coast of California and elsewhere, Congress in 1980 banned off shore drilling around 85% of the US coastline.  Despite huge pressure from the oil monopolies, this ban clung on all the way through the neo-con years, until 31 March this year, when Obama lifted it – just three weeks before the Gulf of Mexico disaster.  He dressed up this move as an  “expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration” that would  “balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources”, promising that “we’ll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration and protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security” (Michael Collins, 25 May, ‘Big Oil, Big Money and Offshore Drilling’,

Although the Gulf coastline had in fact already been exempted from the 85% ban, the timing of events could hardly have been worse for Obama’s green image. BP’s license to drill in the Gulf, granted under the previous administration, had come with a special dispensation, relieving the oil giant of the inconvenience of having to provide a full environmental impact statement.  Clearly not wishing to break with tradition, even in the month after the disaster the present administration handed out at least 27 further such light-regulation leases for deepwater drilling (Michael Collins, ibid).

Overproduction Crisis

So why is it that US imperialism, having staked so much on the endeavour to restore America’s flagging power and influence in the world behind the protective smokescreen of Obama’s “progressive” credentials, seems now prepared to wreck the whole populist scam by giving carte blanche to big oil to trash everything that stands in its path?

Green reformism thinks it has the answer:  oil is running out, so America will go to any lengths to supply its needs.  The drawback to this argument is that, if nothing else, the Gulf disaster demonstrates just how vast the remaining fossil fuel potential on the planet really is.  Given the development of new extraction and consumption technologies and their deployment in a rational manner – i.e. under the control of planned socialist economies serving social need not private profit – there is every reason to be confident that the careful use of fossil fuels, as part of an energy mix including nuclear and renewables, could prove feasible for a much longer span than the “peak oil” Cassandras maintain. The problem is not that we have reached a “tipping point” and oil is just about to dry up; the problem is that the extraction and consumption of oil is controlled by imperialism, which subordinates every other consideration – including the future of human life on this planet – to its right to dominate all markets, shaft all competitors and extract the maximum profits.

Failure to grasp this may account for the muted response the disaster has received from Greenpeace and others.  One disconcerted supporter popped up on the Greenpeace UK website on 11 June to say, “I can’t understand why Greenpeace isn’t using its Research Team to provide solid data on what is happening as a result of the spill. This is the worst man-made environmental disaster – possibly ever – but it’s slipping from the newspapers and the televised news bulletins. There is an amazing lack of information on its impact on people, livelihoods, fish, wildlife, habitats, on the poisonous substances used for dispersal, on the impact at surface and deep levels of the ocean. Where is Greenpeace?” On both its UK and its international websites Greenpeace continued to lead with its campaign to save the Blue fin Tuna – laudable no doubt, but an odd priority to pick at that moment.

For those in the oil business who have a vested interest in preserving the appearance of oil-scarcity – helping thereby to raise prices higher than is warranted by actual market conditions – “peak oil” theory has proved rather convenient. The notion that the most immediate problem facing us is over-consumption of a diminishing resource, rather than the global production of more of this resource than can all be sold at a profit, neatly distracts attention from the most fundamental problem of all, the overproduction crisis of the capitalist system.  Anglo-American imperialism is driven to conquer new oil fields in ever more inaccessible places (off shore, Arctic) and in ever less welcoming locations (Nigeria, Colombia), not fundamentally because it faces a shortage of supply, but because it must strive to dominate the world market against all rivals and maximise its profits.  And the chief obstacle to those profits being maximised is the accelerating impoverishment of those very masses upon whose purchasing capacity capital relies for its own expansion.

Cut throat competition

In the battle to dominate the world market, all pious talk about international cooperation among the community of nations goes out of the window. Foreign Policy magazine reported that whilst thirteen countries had offered assistance to the US within the first two weeks of the disaster, not one offer had yet been accepted by Washington. (Cited by Dian Chu, ‘Why Did The U.S. Refuse International Help on The Gulf Oil Spill?’,

It is obvious that the US, with its massive home territory, should have excelled in onshore drilling techniques, whilst the Europeans have had to master special techniques required for drilling under the sea.  Common sense then would suggest that when a Belgian company claimed that it had the technological expertise to deal with the Gulf spill in three to four months, rather than the estimated nine months planned by the US on their own, Washington would jump at the opportunity. Belgium and Holland lead the world in this kind of technical fix; between them they run the world’s only half-dozen ships that are equipped to the necessary level.  Yet the US prefers to stick to its own, lower tech solutions, keeping jealously to a protectionist script written back in 1920 with the Jones Act.  This Act requires that all goods transported by sea between US ports must sail in US-flagged ships built in the States, owned and crewed by Americans (Dian Chu, ibid).  Even at the cost of seeing its own coastline trashed, US imperialism cannot risk conceding an inch to its competitors, such is the irrational logic of monopoly capitalism.  So it is that commodity production relations will increasingly act as a fetter on the development of the productive forces, until such time as proletarian revolution ends the contradiction between the social character of labour and the private character of appropriation.

The real solution: socialism

The response of socialist Cuba to the threat posed by the oil spill provides a sane and sober contrast to Washington’s schizophrenic mix of collusion, denunciation and less-than-splendid isolation. General Ramon Espinosa, vice-president of the armed forces, stated that it would be a disaster for his country if the spill hit its shores, but “we are documenting and studying. We are preparing with everything in our power”.  Frankly acknowledging that “we have had small spills involving tankers on our coasts, but we’ve never had to confront anything of this magnitude”, Cuba has turned to its fraternal neighbour Venezuela, bringing in experts from that country to advise on damage limitation. Meanwhile Ramon Pardo, head of Cuban civil defence, said that Havana was doing all it could to prepare defences and raise the vigilance of those who live along stretches of the coastline that could be affected. (Guardian, 16 May).

Cuba, under permanent economic embargo from US imperialism, has had to make its own choices about energy under exceptionally difficult circumstances, especially since the loss of the Soviet Union deprived her of a ready supply of oil.  What has served her in good stead during this special period has been the socialist character of her society and leadership.  Socialist planning has made it possible to diversify the economy and reduce the degree of dependence upon oil imports; socialist cooperation with Venezuela has eased Cuba’s oil shortage whilst assisting Venezuela’s own development needs.  Cuba is only one tiny country, living under siege from the mightiest imperialist nation on earth, yet it is able to stand up and show what can be done when social priorities are determined, not by what serves the exploiters, but by what serves the people. Where countries like Cuba, the DPRK, Vietnam and China lead today, the rest of modern humanity can and must follow tomorrow, if we have but the courage to forge our own future.