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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama spins BP spill, and we get to pay

Below is a crosspost from my health and environmental blog, where I post infrequently.

I did see Obama's speech last night, and found it wholly inadequate. He failed to mention that BP was denying responders the use of respirators. Apparently people along the coast are experience dizziness, headaches, and other issues from the leak and, quite possibly, the toxic dispersants as well.

Last night, Obama said nothing of BP's chronic understatement of the size of the leak. The number I've been able to translate from gallons (yes, the size of the leak is being obfuscated by the use of barrels instead of gallons) is about 50,000 barrels a day (calculated from 42 gallons/barrel and an estimated 2 million gallons/day.) A far cry from the 5,000 we were told were leaking by BP for months. The discrepancy speaks legions about BP's credibility, and Obama's as well.

As I say in the article below, I guess it was the size of BP's surface tankers collecting the oil that gave away the true size of the spill. Nothing was volunteered. And now we can only guess at the size of undersea plumes, whose existence BP has denied.

Now today, after negotiating with BP for four hours, Obama said a $20 billion fund will be set up. He neglected to mention when. It was only by digging through the details later that I saw this in an AP article:

"Svanberg announced the company would not pay dividends to shareholders for the rest of the year, including one scheduled for June 21 totaling about $2.6 billion. The company will make initial payments into the escrow fund of $3 billion this summer and $2 billion in the fall, followed by $1.25 billion per quarter until the $20 billion figure is reached."

Excuse me? Where's the beef? The first installment hasn't yet arrived. And what are the poor people on the Gulf going to do should BP go bankrupt? With government serving the corporate interest (above even its own?) we really are on our own.

Begin post:

I'm writing this before President Obama goes before a nationwide audience this evening. I'm not sure if he'll characterize the response to the Deepwater spill as "his own." No one, it would seem, wants to take ownership of the response. The spill is an economic, environmental, and political liability. It may now be such a huge political problem, now that it hasn't been dealt with in a forthright manner.

BP has been actively trying to cover up the disaster. Obviously, they have the most to lose by admitting that the spill is out of control. For weeks, they refused to consider that the leak was anything more than 5,000 barrels. Fedgov has--and is, depending on what Obama will actually do differently--demurred control over the clean-up to BP, a questionable act considering how BP's failure to follow safety rules and regulations led to the crisis.

We've only recently been able to guess at the size of the leak. BP's damage control efforts have been more about controlling public relations and the release of negative information than stopping the leak. The FAA has obliged by preventing overflights of the spill area by media personnel. Just as perception management overshadows the political leadership, so too does BP try and obfuscate damaging press and deflect criticism to prop up its sagging public image (limiting lawsuits is another goal.)

As hard as Obama might try to sound tonight, it's a safe bet what he does won't be anywhere as aggressive. It's a recurring theme: talk tough and do little to nothing. How much more bad leadership can America take? As a defender of the environment, I guess I might take some consolidation in the carbon taxes he'll likely try to sell. In my opinion, trying to take advantage of the spill is grossly immoral, even if it points the country in a different direction.

Fact is, the buck stops at the President's desk. If for whatever reason he can't get BP to stop the leak(s ?), he needs to do it himself. Yet he's said he lacks the resources to stop it. Can we honestly believe that? With all those trillions spent on our war machine, I can't believe we can't put anything out there on the water. During an oil spill off Saudi Arabia, huge tankers vacuumed up the oily water. Why can't we at least try to do something like that? Deepwater will likely do more damage to the US--economically--than any terror strike could have. Yet we haven't anticipated it, and now must depend on the polluter's capability to respond, which so far now eight weeks later, has been...surprise...inadequate.

We could talk forever about how the spill could have been better dealt with. We could also talk in volumes about how the spill could have been avoided. I'm sure the mainstream media will cover these valuable issues, judging from the scale of the disaster. So in this respect, don't expect me to repeat what's regurgitated but rather spotlight the less published secrets and schemes meant to mislead the public and cover up the extensive relationship between policymakers and Washington and BP.

Now Obama might say anything tonight. And some people will believe him, no matter what he says. It's often easier to believe that something will be done than see it done. Obama's time in office can be characterized as lip service to the ideal, and doing the complete opposite.

I could list many examples of what Obama said on the campaign trail he didn't do in office. The glowing one, of course, is the failure to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq according to the promised timeframe. Escalating the Afghan war is something Obama never said he would not do, however.

As a side note, I found it amusing that a report just came out indicating Afghanistan had $1 trillion in minerals and natural resources. Of course, this bounty is the reason our occupation has lasted so long--a point I made on my blog years ago. If we won, we'd get to go home. A trillion dollars is a pretty good motive to find terrorists behind every bush, and press an unworkable plan into an unwinnable occupation. And meanwhile the Military Security Complex fattens itself on the blood of innocents and young Americans caste into the fray.

* * *

According to the Los Angeles Times, Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's chief of staff, was staying for five years in a Washington, D.C. townhouse owned by a BP adviser. Emmanuel has been known to say that no disaster should go to waste. This fits exactly with Naomi's Klein's concept of disaster capitalism, where corporation profit from inadequate enforcement except, of course, instead of greedy corporations it's crass political opportunism.

Money rules the Washington establishment, and the consensus in Washington is that corporations pay better than serving the public interest, at least as long as illusion that the public is being represented can be preserved. This is why the art form of perception management has latched onto the Washington establishment--feeding the myth that politicians are still serving their constituencies.

Maybe the unholy alliance between the corporate and political worlds has been at work for longer than we've realized. Wherever we now stand in the historical cycle--whether at some new low point or somewhere along a slippery, downward slope--it's obvious deft management of the media is seen as more than valuable than actual leadership. Preserving the impression that something is being done ameliorates the public's rightful skepticism. Meanwhile, deals in the back rooms and corridors of power allow the wealthy and corporations to avoid accountability.

Regulations are much criticized despite the fact they were greatly eviscerated prior to the financial crisis (see the testimony of Texas professor James Galbraith here.) Rather than presenting an obstacle to growth, regulations--if enforced--protect the markets. The trillions of equity (I've heard $10 trillion real estate and another $10 trillion in equity values) that disappeared didn't have to vanish. Yet the companies who kept pushing risky bets in the Wall Street casino gained the most from short-sighted speculation, exactly the thing Glass-Steagal tried to prevent prior to its dismantling by Congress.

So now, with all that oil bursting from the busted, under-maintained well in the Gulf, it's clear that a lack of enforcement is to blame. Self-regulation, a term that came into existence during the get-rich 1980s, simply doesn't work. The forces of greed are simply too strong in the corporate enterprise. Profit-taking is simply too short-term an approach to consider longer term consequences, even if they include self-destruction. British Petroleum stands now on that precipice. And if it'd go under, many investors and stakeholders would pay the price.

Those that profit the most in the short-term aren't likely to hang around once their mistakes impact the companies they once led. The executives who should have monitored the company's compliance will jet away and land in exclusive retirement retreats on golden parachutes.

We could blame greed for this--or the structure of corporate governance. All too often corporate boards rubber stamp the decisions of upper management. Shareholders rarely question the ethics or morality of board decisions, especially in regard to compensation committees. All too easy it is for board members to consent to huge stock options packages for executives, based on quarterly performance, rather than measure performance against longer term objectives.

The environment is a stakeholder in all corporations. Rather than look at the earth as a passive backdrop, a source of raw materials, to be plundered 'til exhaustion, all corporations must look at sustainability. Implementing sustainable practices requires full commitment by shareholders and corporate Board members who perform the invaluable function of holding executive management to account.

Like auditors, independent outsiders need to observe corporate practices and report on them. Most importantly, regulatory lapses must be corrected. If government regulators have recurring issues with a company, or its methods, the shareholders and directors need to take action. The BP case clearly shows the consequences of non-monitoring. And preventable are the effects if the causes are obvious for all to see (except perhaps the executives who are trying to squeeze maximum profit out of their operations by undercutting safety.)

Well, if BP should go under, I think the environment will have its say. Again, BP's misconduct wasn't isolated or random but rather sustained and serious. The company had been put on probation--which I said in my last post is an utterly meaningless proposition that obviously did nothing to push the company in to compliance.

Another huge lesson is for government. When regulators fail their job--as Galbraith's testimony linked above explains--everyone loses. Not only the offending company--the Enron, the Worldcomm, the BP--but so many people who had done nothing wrong. The lesson lies in government doing its job, and walls being put between the regulators and regulated.

Enough said. At this time we don't need lessons, we need to prevent the tragedy from worsening. Now isn't the time for opportunism, or even recriminations. It's time to stop the spill. If Obama can't do that, he'll almost certainly be tossed aside in 2012.

Obama appears to be having a hard time getting BP to pay all its claims. This shouldn't be a surprise. If you read my post on blogspot last month, you'd have been reminded of how long it took Exxon to pay the fisherman in Prince William Sound, and how inadequate their compensatory damages had been as awarded by a corporate-friendly Supreme Court some twenty years later.

Now if Obama can only spend our money--or our children's children's to be more accurate, as it's all borrowed--to clean up the spill, I'd say fedgov has become utterly toothless or so wholly beholden to BP that it socializes the costs of the companies pollution. Either alternative is unacceptable. We do know the taxes on oil drilling will go up, presumably to pay for future spills. Guess who gets to pay for the taxes? You. So because fedgov (especially the notorious M.M.S.) failed to regulate, and BP didn't self-regulate, you pay.

Unless of course you live on the Gulf, the largest impact will be higher energy costs. If Obama chooses to exploit the disaster by urging a carbon tax scheme, it'll provide a dark motive for not handling the response, or letting BP bungle it. Another impact: shipping into and out of the Port of New Orleans will be more expensive, and delayed, resulting in higher prices for some kinds of imports throughout the country, and lower prices for exports like grains from the Midwest which go through New Orleans, typically via barge down the Mississippi.

Under-regulated, BP pollutes. The corporate state capitalizes on the failure. And we get to pay, higher prices for gas and energy, as well as some imports. The scheme encourages wrong-doing and punishes the innocent unless of course BP really does go under, or the Supreme Court reverses its corporate-friendly bias and uncaps damage limits. Neither scenario--really the same issue, liability--is likely to occur. BP will be allowed to go on, and the costs in some way limited in order to protect the corporation.

~End post

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