Thursday, May 27, 2010

Very Deep Water

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Laura sent me a link to an article by Greg Palast which noted British Petroleum's responsibility in the Exxon Valdez disaster, and its very similar actions in the Gulf of Mexico. This little bit of information, along with BP's dismal safety record, never seems to hit the mainstream media - which has only just discovered that BP has numerous fines for deceptive practices over the last 5 years. So, with a day off, I got curious and started a little digging via the Internet.

Remember the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline? Well it's barely been mentioned in the news that the pipeline has a storage tank that has been overflowing and spilling crude oil for three days now - causing an almost complete shutdown  ( 8% of normal) of the pipeline. The company which owns the pipeline claims that all of the oil spilled has been caught in a containment area. And there are no hazardous fumes involved. The pipeline carries crude oil from Alaska's North Slope to an intake station in Prudhoe Bay. From there, the pipeline carries the oil to the shipping point at Valdez. Does that name sound familiar  - as in Exxon Valdez?

The company which built and manages the pipeline is the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. The crude oil it carries is produced at the North Slope thru the auspices of BP, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon Mobil, who, as partners, just happen to own  95 % of the Alyeska Pipeline Service.

Back in 1989, the Exxon Valdez was carrying 54.1 million US gallons of BP's oil when it ran aground on a reef, spilling at least 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound. (Some groups maintain that that estimate was "under reported".) That spill spread to cover 1,300 miles of coastline and 11 thousand square miles of ocean. The first attempt at a cleanup was through the use of a dispersant, surfactant and a solvent. There was also an attempt to burn off the oil. The mechanical cleanup involved booms and skimmers, but they were not available until over 24 hours after the accident. Then they tried high pressure hot  water, which killed the plankton and microorganisms which were part of the coastal marine food chain. Does this sound somewhat familiar? If it reminds you of the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico, then I guess it's time to note that (as per Greg Palast) the company behind the Exxon Valdez cleanup was (drum roll, please) British Petroleum - and I'll add that it was via Aleyska, whose 2nd biggest stockholder after BP is Exxon Mobil.

Oh, by the way, as of 2007, it was estimated that more than 26,000 gallons of oil still remain in the sands of the Prince William Sound shoreline... In litigation over the spill, Exxon was ordered to pay 5 billion dollars in punitive damages (one year's profits at the time). Exxon appealed, and to protect themselves just in case, they arranged a 4.8 billion credit line through JP Morgan & Co. In order that they not have to keep so much money in reserve, Morgan created the modern credit default swap. After many appeals, the US Supreme Court reduced Exxon's punitive damages to 575.5 million.

How deep does this rabbit hole go? Well, once upon a time there was an old man who had a lot of good press for handing out shiny new dimes to kids. His name was John D. Rockefeller. He was responsible for creating and running an oil producing, transporting, refining, and marketing company named Standard Oil.
He bought and/or crushed his competition through dirty tricks, secret deals, and underselling his competition.
Standard Oil basically became the world's first multinational corporation. In one deal, a division of the New York Central Railroad gave Standard Oil a 71% discount on shipping provided Standard ship 60 carloads of oil daily. Smaller companies complained, but  were still priced out of the market (not unlike Walmart's deals today). In 1911, the US sued Standard Oil under monopoly regulations and broke it into 34 companies. Standard Oil of New Jersey became Esso (S.O. get it?) which became Exxon which became Exxon Mobil. (Mobil was originally Standard Oil of New York.) Standard Oil of California Became ChevronTexaco. Standard Oil of Indiana (Amoco) was acquired by - British Petroleum. Standard Oil Atlantic went to BP as well, although there were some leftovers which became Sunoco. In 1941, Standard Oil hooked up with I.G. Farben (a German Chemical Conglomerate). I.G. Farben then built a plant to manufacture synthetic petroleum. The plant was located at Auschwitz. At its peak, the plant used 83,000 slave laborers from the camp. Oh, by the way, IG Farben also held the patent for Zyklon B, which was the gas used in the extermination camps.

I mention all these connections to point out the high cost of oil, and to give an idea of the kinds of folk we're dealing with in BP's Gulf/Deepwater disaster. Not long ago, BP was fined a paltry $373 million to avoid prosecution for breaking U.S. environmental and safety laws, and committing outright fraud. In the last 3 years, BP has had 760 "egregious, willful" safety violations. In 2005, there was an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas which killed 15 people and injured another 180 more. The Justice Dept. found that the explosion occurred due to "improperly released vapor and liquid.". BP paid a whopping 50 million for that one. Last October, BP paid another 67 million for failing to correct the problems at the Texas plant. In 2007, a BP oil spill poured 200,000 gallons of crude into the Alaskan wilderness. Investigators found that BP was aware of corrosion in the pipeline where the failure occurred, but had done nothing about it. That was another 12 million in fines. The US Dept of Justice fined BP 353 million for conspiracy to manipulate the propane gas market. Seven million people in the US heat with propane. Additional cost to the consumer $53 million.

In 2009, BP reported profits of $14 billion.

I keep seeing this image in my mind:

Fire on the Water. That used to be enough to bring out the soothsayers. Isn't it one of the signs of the Apocalypse? If you look it up in the I Ching : Fire on the Water - the image of opposition... there is a need to look beneath the exterior to learn the lesson.

...and I've barely scratched the surface...