Sunday, May 02, 2010

Hurricane Us: a Hasty Screed

No stranger to disaster, Louisiana faces what may be its worst-ever coastal impact in the next 24 hours. By tomorrow, the first of millions of gallons of floating crude oil will wash ashore in Louisiana, with all five Gulf states potentially endangered in the days and weeks ahead.  At immediate risk: hundreds of miles of hard-working coastline and hundreds of years of cultural dependence on coastal resources.  

As oily waves roll in, rookeries will foul, fisheries smother and oysters beds be buried in a toxic emulsion. Miles of green marsh will turn black and perhaps remain so for years.  This Fall, when a thousand thousand migrant birds pass through en route to South America, they'll risk their lives just by landing. How much worse for those animals and people who live here year round?  This oil may be with us, like a bad gene, for generations. 

The blame and the retribution for this spill will be epic.  Unlike the damage left by our 2005 hurricanes, no one disputes the man-made nature of this nightmare.  Even as a nation we continue to sort out and remedy damages from Katrina and Rita; even as we pay the mortgage on the housing bust, buy up car companies and banks and fight wars on several fronts, we will begin to pay the cost of this probably inevitable mishap.

Although BP has accepted full responsibility for this spill and its unknowable after effects, don't feel your burden lifted.  If like me you drive a car or truck or tractor, enjoy your lights at night and heat in the winter; if you're not living off the grid somewhere on well water and deer meat, be prepared to carry your share of the blame for this latest gust in a much larger storm called Hurricane Us.


Sydney Markle said...

Being a native to the Gulf Coast area, this event has been weighing heavy on my heart. Thank you Matt, they way you've written this expresses the thoughts my emotions had not let me discover yet.

Russ London said...


Unfortunately BP may not have in fact accepted "full responsibility".

The web site your cited shows that BP is made of several corporations or members, the website call it the "BP group". Today, most big corporations are made of of separate entities sometimes called "lifeboats" (by one of my law professors). If the liabilities of one threatens the financial stability of the others then it is "cut loose" (bankruptcy). The surviving entities owe nothing.

BP is made up of several well known companies such as Atlantic Richfield, ARCO, and even Castrol oil. The Gulf drilling operation is also such a separate entity.

Most legal authorities cite Exxon's mistake prior to the Valdez spill was not having appropriate separate companies so the main entity took the entire hit (After Valdez, Exxon "spun off" its shipping interests). BP's corporate structure was obviously designed to protect it from full liability for anything.

BP also merely leased the rig from another company giving it more legal cover from liability by blaming the failure of the structure itself.

Finally,incredibly, after the Valdez disaster,congress passed an act limiting the amount a company can pay for a toxic waste cleanup to $750k. That the act is referred to as a "restriction" rather than a "limitation of liability" shows the lobbying power of major corporations as well as the cynicism of Congress.

Gongress is now runnng for cover and debating a expansion of this "restriction" but it will not effect the liability of BP in this disaster.

In the end, BP's public relations department will probably dictate how much they will pay to look good and avoid costly regulation. How much BP is willing to pay will only be determined in the future.

Russ London

Matt Mullenix said...

Sydney I'm sure I owe most of my perspective on this to various positions taken by Wendell Berry. In his Kentucky region, the fossil fuel extraction source is coal, and his admitted reliance on coal-provided electricity fuels some of his most affecting arguments. His approach always implicates himself and the rest of us for creating the demand that energy companies and our government work so hard to satisfy.

Russ, I don't doubt the savy ability of this multinational to preserve itself in the long run. As Berry illustrates, a corporation is just a pile of money responsible only to its own growth.

But it's the above-mentioned recognition of personal responsibility in this spill (and also my admiration for numerous local BP employees I know) that makes demonizing the company difficult for me.

You know we don't have a lot of lines in the water around here. Those who don't fish for fish in Louisiana, fish for oil.

Anonymous said...

"Drill baby drill" don't sound so funny now, do it?....L.B.