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BP barons fuel oil slick disaster

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The explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling station that killed 11 workers was only the beginning of a nightmare for the people living in the Gulf of Mexico. Simon Hardy reports

BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still pumping out around 400,000 gallons of crude oil a day, is a harsh example of the crisis of capitalism and its destructive impact on the planet. Thousands of gallons of crude oil pumping into the ocean every day is a major threat to the Gulf’s wildlife, ecosystems and local economy. Thousands of dead fish have washed up on shore, while hundreds of birds lie dying on the beaches. The flora and fauna along the coast are also in jeopardy. The cleanup operation is using a dispersant that is itself toxic and harmful to fish. Many fishermen have been forced out of work and the tourism industry will suffer – who wants to sun themselves on a Florida coast covered in oil?

Reminiscent of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the free market – and the US government’s unconditional defence of it – has hampered any effective response to the crisis.

Crisis exposes pro-market madness
BP and the US government have spent weeks wrangling over who should handle the operation to stop the oil spill and clean up the coast. Finally, it was agreed that BP had to stop the oil spill and pay compensation for the damage, while Obama sent in the National Guard to carry out disaster management along the coast.

But BP was slow to respond – at times even preferring to spend more energy on public relations than on actually stopping the spill. BP hired the talents of people like Romano Prodi, formerly an Italian prime minister, and Josh Bolton, who worked as a Chief of Staff for George W Bush, to manage its public relations. It even bought internet search terms such as “BP Oil Slick” to redirect web users to their website.

The bickering between the White House, senate and BP continues to play out while the oil pumps into the ocean, daily exposing the most incredible hypocrisy from both sides.

Business leaders, who only yesterday complained about government interference, bemoan the state’s inaction; and politicians, who once claimed the free market could do no wrong, are demanding the government toughens its stance on big business interests.

Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican governor, is on record opposing “big government” and preferring the “enterprising spirit” of US citizens. But when his coastline was drenched in oil, he complained that the federal government was not doing enough to help. During the credit crunch, arch-neoliberals were arguing for state bailouts for the banks, saying, “There are no ideologues in fox holes”. It seems that when there is a crisis, whether economic or environmental, suddenly the need for a central state with control of the situation becomes apparent even to the most laissez-faire-minded governors.

The problem is that the equipment that can stop the spill is entirely owned by the private sector. Even if Obama wanted to get the situation resolved more quickly, he is limited by having to negotiate and pay the price the corporates, such as Halliburton, that own the equipment demand.

The most sensible solution would be to nationalise BP’s US operations and place them under the control of the workers themselves -after all it was the rig engineers who argued for the safety procedures to be followed, but the managers didn’t listen. Running BP as a nationalised company under workers control would not only remove the profit motive, it would also allow the workers to decide on the best way of working the dangerous equipment. Although a necessity to effectively deal with this crisis, such a move is an anathema to these capitalist politicians.

The power of finance capital
BP is the fourth largest corporation in the world (behind Shell, Exxon and Walmart). But BP is not just a petrochemical giant – it is also a huge financial institution. It holds around 8 per cent of British pension funds, as pension investment firms see energy companies as “stable” investments.

In fact, BP is a perfect example of a modern multinational corporation that has its fingers in many pies. It encapsulates what the Marxists Hilferding and Lenin called “finance capital” because it fuses industrial and financial capital into a complex web of corporate interests.

Even the timid threats by the US government to make BP pay for the spill have evoked a torrent of nationalist bilge from the British establishment: the Daily Mail condemned Obama’s “cynical attacks on BP”, and London Mayor Boris Johnson criticised Washington’s “Brit bashing”. This jingoistic response is a distraction: BP is responsible for criminal negligence and environmental ruin, and should be punished.

A criminal investigation is a good start, but we cannot rely on the US courts to mete out real justice, packed as they are with members from the moneyed class. Instead an independent investigation should be conducted under the auspices of the American labour movement and environmental organisations to ascertain BP’s liability.

Why is off shore drilling so important?
Capitalist governments worldwide are terrified of the oil running out. A number of researchers argue that it is already happening, and soon the oil that is left will be harder and costlier to get out of the ground. This is why oil companies are increasingly looking to deep sea and offshore drilling.

It is also why as soon as the polar ice caps melted sufficiently Russia claimed a part of Arctic Ocean – with the help of a submarine – in the hope of finding oil there.

However, the desperate rush to carry out more deep-sea exploration will only lead to further disasters like this. Despite their ever-soaring profits, energy companies act like any other capitalist business and continually cut back on health and safety protocols in order to save money. The energy industry is almost entirely self-regulating when it comes to health and safety criteria, as successive US governments have handed over most of the responsibilities to the companies themselves, a sure recipe for disasters waiting to happen and something that any inquiry must expose.

The crucial question facing humanity is how can we kick the fossil fuel habit? The twin dangers of climate change and environmental damage loom over our planet, effectively condemning future generations unless we act now. We need to move away from our dependency on fossil fuels and towards alternative forms of energy. BP’s profits, if confiscated and ploughed into research and design for alternative power sources, would improve the situation, but under capitalism the profit drive trumps everything else.

Currently, a lot of research into non-fossil fuel energy production is being conducted by the same petroleum companies who have a vested interest in maintaining fossil fuels as the staple form of energy in use. That’s why socialists fight for energy companies to be removed from the market through nationalisation without compensation and under workers’ control. Their profits should be spent on renewable energy research and their more environmentally destructive practices stopped immediately.

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