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You Drill, You Spill

Sobering, is it not, to realize that the possible survival of a huge oil company, of several billion shrimp, assorted species of fish and birds, not to mention avoidance of a near lethal lurch in the fortunes of Louisiana’s fishing and ocean rec industries and the future of offshore drilling up the Atlantic coast could depend on a feat as tricky as rolling a condom on the end of a string onto the penis of a man at street level by remote control from the top of the Empire State Building.

So-called accidents in oil extraction invariably produce numbers as whimsical and liable to sudden change as the currents which will menace British Petroleum’s gigantic steel cap, a telephone booth four stories high, scheduled to be lowered onto the leaking oil pipe on the ocean floor 5,000 feat down, putting out maybe 10,000 barrels of crude a day.

The central fraud here is perpetrated by the word “accident,” which should properly be defined as normalcy, occasionally raised to the level of drama.

Oil spills, particularly from ocean drilling through to transport via pipeline and tanker are dead certs, whether the depth is 5,000 feet or 500, the pipeline broken by incompetence or an earthquake, the tanker steered by a drunk or a seasoned Master sipping herb tea.

As Karl Grossman, veteran journalist who wrote many influential exposes of the dangers of offshore drilling 35 years ago, recently wrote on our site, “The reality is that wherever there’s oil drilling, there’s spilling. US Department of Interior figures reflect three million gallons of oil spilled from 1980 to 1999 in the US outer continental shelf offshore drilling program. As to blowouts, there were 18 in wells in the Gulf of Mexico from 1983 up to the eruption at the Deepwater Horizon rig.”

The useful parallel here is the rate of industrial “accidents” among workers, currently running at an pretty sure-fire average of 15 corpses and 10,950 maimed or hurting workers at the end of each day on the job, with the boost of 11 workers on BP’s Gulf platform killed on April 29.

Oil drilling is one of the dirtiest of all businesses, physically and politically. In recent years BP has spent many millions in the US, trying to winch its reputation out of the mud with bright advertising paeans to its green commitment. Along with its greenwashing ad campaigns it’s staked $500 million on a biofuel research center at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. Every gallon gushing from the holes in the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico sinks the company’s reputation back in the primal ooze of a reputation permanently disfigured by environmental havoc, political bribes and ruthless campaigns against those courageous enough to blow the whistle on the company.

It’s easy to identify the recipients of oil money from the vehemence of their commitment to offshore drilling, even as the Gulf coast faces what may be the biggest disaster in the oil industry’s history in the US and surrounding waters. Start with US Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana who said on the Senate floor a week ago: “I don’t believe we should retreat” on offshore drilling.

Senator Landrieu informed her fellow senators, many of them also fattened on the industry’s tab, that “What’s important about this sheen is that 97% of it is a rainbow sheen. Only 3% contains emulsified crude… 97% of it is an extremely thin sheen of relatively light oil on the surface.” This carefree comparison of BP’s spill to the pleasing glow of French polish on an eighteenth-century Sheraton side table is what the oil industry has purchased from Landrieu, who has taken in $574,000 in political contributions from oil companies from 2000 to 2008.

From French polish to cocoa. “What I want people to know is this isn't Katrina,” said Mississippi Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Gene Taylor. “This is not Armageddon. Yeah, it's bad. And it's terrible that there's a spill out there. But I would remind people that the oil is twenty miles from any marsh. … That chocolate milk looking spill starts breaking up in smaller pieces … It is tending to break up naturally.” As for Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) described the disaster as an unavoidable “Act of God” and called for more offshore drilling.

One of the more piquant spectacles in politics today is the somewhat nervous emergence of Obama as hammer of the robber barons. Though his campaign was awash with Wall Street money, much of it coming from Goldman Sachs, whose former employees infest his administration in senior positions, and though he backed the 100% bailout of G-S in its hour of need, Obama now floats upward in the polls because voters furious at the banks associate him with the SEC’s civil suit against Goldman-Sachs and its possible criminal indictment by the Justice Department. If only Obama had launched on this path a year ago, rather than blow all those months on health reform.

Obama now wags his finger at BP and vows that it will pay for every penny of the clean-up. He actually took more campaign money from B-P than did his Republican opponent in 2008, Senator John McCain. The oil money had its usual consequence. Obama broke with support for a decades’ long ban to indicate earlier this year his approval of offshore drilling up and down the Atlantic coast. Even now, despite hasty back peddling, he proclaims his support for offshore drilling on the Atlantic side with proper “safeguards,” which of course last only as long as the entirely inevitable “accident.”

The problem for the oil industry’s offshore drilling plans is rich people who don’t care to have their beaches on Hobe Sound, Florida, and along the shores of the Carolinas north to Virginia marred by crude oil, however alluring the sheen of money may be from the oil stocks in their portfolios. Most lethal pollution in America takes place, entirely unaccidentally, in poor neighborhoods. Not too many beautiful people — unless you count Janice Joplin (daughter of a Texaco oil engineer) — hail from Port Arthur, Texas, where what passes for seawater looks as sinister as Lethe. Obama has presented the energy industry with another huge present, breaking with a generation-long ban. The two new nuclear reactors, eased by Obama towards construction with $8.3 billion in loan guarantees, are to be built next to an existing pair of nuclear reactors in mostly black Burke County, Georgia. Rich people don’t care to live in the scarred landscapes of coal country in the Appalachians, even though were plenty of rich people living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s when the smog from the steel mills brought darkness at noon and the glare of street lamps 24/7 so people could see far enough ahead to drive down the street.

It was when oil spilled onto the prosperous Santa Barbara shoreline that offshore drilling died on the West Coast. I’m still slightly shocked that the millionaires of Nantucket have seemingly gone down to defeat on the wind “farm.” What’s happening to the ruling class? The most fearsome coalition I ever encountered was “Scenic Hudson” about which I wrote a story in “House and Garden” in the late 1970s. The grand alliance ranged from Roosevelt’s cousin Daisy Suckley who reminded me she had trained FDR’s little dog Fala, to Pete Seeger, to various retired CIA officers of gentle birth, fresh from mass murder in southeast Asia. Incidentally, between oil derricks and wind farms I’d rather look at the former. Anyone doubting my word should drive along I-10, just west of Palm Springs.

If they can’t lower that steel condom on the leak, the Atlantic coastline will at least be safe for a while, though probably not indefinitely. As Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, a company deeply implicated in the BP spill, defiantly out it, “The American way of life is not negotiable,” a remark I set on the mantelpiece right next to the defiant bellow of Bush Sr’s Budget Director, Richard Darman, that “America did not fight and win the wars of the 20th century to make the world safe for green vegetables.”

Footnote: Head 785 miles further east along I-10 and you get to Sierra Blanca, the small Hispanic town in West Texas destroyed by sewage and kindred toxic waste transported thither from the North-East. I drive past this blighted spot every couple of years and think of Bernie Sanders, who exhibited the true depth of his supposed populism by ardently supporting the export of his state’s poisons to a distant community inhabited by brown people too poor to defend themselves.

A few weeks ago it seemed possible that Sanders was actually on the edge of genuine political achievement instead of grandstanding with his habitual bluster. He and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were co-sponsoring a bill mandating a proper audit of the Federal Reserve. But Blowhard Bernie’s collapse came right on schedule. On Thursday a furious Paul issued a press release charging that Sanders had “sold out” on a measure to audit the Federal Reserve. Sanders had agreed to modify the measure in a way that requires audits of the Fed during the financial crisis but not of the bank's monetary policy. Fumed Paul: “Bernie Sanders has sold out and sided with [Sen.] Chris Dodd to gut ‘Audit the Fed’ in the Senate. His 'compromise' is what the administration and banking interests want.”

That was the second stab in the back of financial reform from the Democratic side of the aisle. Earlier in the week two Republicans, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, bucked their party to vote in support of the amendment sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), requiring megabanks to be broken down in size and capped so that their individual failure would not bring down the entire system. Under Brown-Kaufman, no bank could hold more than 10% of the total amount of insured deposits, and a limit would have been placed on liabilities of a single bank to 2% of GDP.

So that meant the bill was filibuster proof? No, of course it didn’t mean anything of the sort. Only 31 Democrats mustered in support of the measure.

Talking to Michael Pollan

Catch Pollan’s vivid interview in our latest newsletter, just out. A couple of samples:

Pollan: “We’ve adopted the reductive language of nutrition from the scientists: we all talk about saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup. It’s fascinating to listen to Americans talk about food today. They sound like a bunch of amateur scientists. They don’t talk about foods; they talk about nutrients….You’re either ruining your health or you’re improving your health with every meal. And that’s a kind of bizarre view of food. I mean, people eat for a great many other reasons. So, I think we’ve lost our sense of food.”

Pollan again: “The food movement has many faces to it: there are people who are working on school lunches, people working on community food security in the inner city, and people working on changing the farm, and farm to hospital movements. It’s a very big, inchoate movement that is just starting to gel and be felt, I think, at the national level. It’s kind of where environmentalism was in the 60s, around the time of Earth Day.”

Also in the new newsletter a wonderful story from the annals of classical espionage: the full story, by Igor Atamanenko, of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest triumphs — the saga of the Chrysostom bug and the extraordinary man who designed it: Leon Theremin, also inventor of the world’s first synthesizer and the only man we know of who preferred to return to the Soviet Union in 1938 rather than do battle with the IRS.

(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

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