Big Oil’s Predations are not Your Fault

No, the BP oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico is not your fault, despite what many pundits will tell you. Back in the 1960s when the environmental movement got going, major US corporations responsible for much of the nation’s pollution decided to fight it by paying for television advertising that urged individuals not to litter, thus implying that pollution is produced by anarchic individuals rather than by organized businesses. It was a crock then and it is a crock now.

You did not demand that BP consistently cut safety corners more than any other petroleum company, thus resulting in the Deepwater Horizon calamity, which could end up costing the economy of the Gulf of Mexico literally hundreds of billions of dollars this year.

How much the Gulf oil catastrophe is not your fault can more clearly be seen if we consider the ways in which a BP refinery in Indiana is threatening the Great Lakes with excess pollution.

The BP refinery received permission from the Indiana legislature to increase its ammonia and silt (infested with toxic heavy metals) output into the Lakes. The increased pollution was part of an expansion of the refinery to allow it to process Canadian tar sands. In addition, BP has illegally spewed extra benzene into the lakes (benzene is a known cause of leukemia) and has also repeatedly broken the law with regard to air pollution standards.

You did not ask BP to dump extra benzene illegally into Lake Michigan (the lakes are connected). You did not agitate in Indianapolis to permit the refinery to expand to handle tar sand, which is all by itself an ecological catastrophe. You did not demand that more ammonia and toxic metals be dumped into the lakes. None of these crimes against nature was your individual responsibility.

Rather, the Indiana legislature passed these laws because of ‘legislative capture.’ That phenomenon occurs when an industry that is supposed to be regulated by a legislature instead pays so much for political campaigns that it captures the members and proves able to write the legislation affecting its interests. Legislative capture explains almost everything that is wrong with America today, from the wars to the difficulty in expanding health care, and from inaction on climate change to the high price of prescription drugs.

Legislative capture is not your fault.

In fact, it is mostly the fault of Ronald Reagan, who so lowered taxes on the rich that he allowed them to capture almost all the country’s increased wealth since the 1980s, depriving ordinary Americans of any real increase in the standard of living. Since our filthy rich quadrupled their wealth in recent decades but most of you don’t have 4 times as much money in the bank as you used to, you are competing less and less well with the rich for access to and influence with your elected representatives.

This year a man worth $9 billion died and passed it on to his children without paying any estate tax at all, thanks to the Republican Party. This situation is creating a permanent aristocracy of the sort that in the eighteenth century ruled the 13 colonies in the East and the northern territories of the Spanish Empire in the West, all of which now have congealed into the United States. One of the points of the American Revolution from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson was to make the country safe for middling, yeoman farmers and to prevent the distant colonial aristocracy from taxing us without representation.

Our new business aristocracy, whether Big Oil or Big Banking, taxes us indirectly by legislative capture, by arranging for bought-and-paid-for politicians to subsidize their industries with public tax monies. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy, and often the wealthy have made key contributions to society. But let us face it. Business classes are interested in short-term profit and seldom think in terms of long-term cost-benefit for society. Having a dynamic business class in a society can be a plus if its focus on short-term gain for the company can be offset by other powerful forces in society– labor unions, NGOs, intellectuals and others. But when the business classes get so they own nearly half the privately held wealth, they can overwhelm everyone else and take society in self-destructive directions– as happened with the Iraq War, the economic collapse in September of 2008 and with the oil rig collapse in April 2010.

And that is not your fault.

Now, part of what the pundits are saying when they say the Gulf oil gusher is your fault is that you like to drive your car inexpensively to work, and so you are part of a consumer market that motivates BP to drill. But it is grossly unfair to blame you, the worker, for the difficulty of getting to work by much more efficient rail or for allegedly rejecting electric vehicles powered by .e.g. wind farms.

The US government gives and has for decades given massive hidden subsidies to the petroleum industry that make gasoline seem far less expensive than than it is, and auto, cement and oil corporations successfully lobbied for taxpayer subsidies for highway systems rather than for rail and public transport.

You did not ask them to do that.

Joe Blumenauer notes:

‘Oil companies receive special deductions lowering their effective tax rate to about 11 percent, compared to 18 percent for non-oil industries. This has cost an estimated $200 billion since 1968 and, with soaring industry profits in recent years, is growing at an ever-increasing rate. ‘

The cost of licenses for offshore drilling have been mysteriously slashed by the Department of the Interior, a way of transferring your money to the oil companies and of actually promoting offshore drilling, with all its potential to harm you environmentally and economically. Do you remember lobbying the Mines and Minerals Service for that one?

Even the wars you are paying for in the Perso-Arabian Gulf and in Central Asia, as well as the aid given Israel and Egypt, amounting altogether to over $100 billion a year, must be seen as a subsidy to big oil.

And then, the cost of water, soil and air pollution is not figured into the price of a gallon of gasoline. It is charged to the taxpayer in various ways. And, global warming is also not figured into the cost of gasoline.

In fact, the various deep subsidies that you are involuntarily giving Big Oil are being used in part to buy a propaganda campaign to convince you that climate change has been exaggerated and is nothing to worry about. Ironic, ain’t it?

But that is not your fault, either.

People keep saying that wind power is ‘just about’ competitive with oil and gas. But in fact if the true cost of oil and gas were properly calculated, and all the hidden subsidies were removed, wind would be revealed to be much cheaper than these other power sources are. Even solar might make a good showing in that case. (Don’t bother complaining to me about the limits of wind turbines and solar cells; they have those limits because not enough research and development money has been thrown at them by the government and by government-engineered incentives to private business. A reader complained that the investment had not worked with regard to fusion but that is silly. Wind and solar are proven but infant technologies and Germany has already shown that government support makes a big difference here.)

The subsidies for petroleum are unlikely to be lifted. This outcome is not because you will lobby congress and the senate to keep supporting big oil with your tax dollars. It is because of legislative capture. Too many elected representatives secretly run on the Big Oil Party ticket. (And no, it is not true that President Obama is more guilty of that than were his opponents).

It would help if the US Supreme Court did not recognize corporations as persons and did not confuse political campaign money with free speech, and if it would allow Germany’s practice of making campaign ads free. Then our elected representatives would not have to spend all their time raising money for television commercials from corporations in return for legislative quid pro quos. But the Court is appointed by the politicians who are victims of legislative capture, and it therefore represents the interests of Big Business.

I don’t know how to turn this thing around. I don’t know how to get free campaign commercials, or less money in politics, or stop legislative capture or halt the enthronement of the New American Business Aristocracy, with its all too frequent focus on short-term profit over long-term public welfare. I don’t know how to stop offshore drilling or wean us all off petroleum-fueled automobiles (I know that such a weaning would in any case take decades–but we haven’t even begun). Me, I ride my bike into work 9 months of the year.

I do know that many congressional Democrats see the current tragedy as a once-in-a-century opportunity to reformulate energy policy away from petroleum, and that they will need an outpouring of public support and of public donations to pull that off.

If you don’t support them in this push to begin getting away from hydrocarbons, then whatever follows– will be your fault.

52 Responses

  1. Cheers Juan.
    I’m not an American but your description has a striking similarity to what is happening in my own country, India. Rich businesspeople and political dynasties are slowly grabbing power and privilege while trying to claim they’re doing it for our benefit.

  2. Thank you Professor for this piece. I shall circulate it amongst my friends.
    Well said!

  3. The market economy was created in England in the early 1800’s with the repeal of the Speenhamland laws. The industrial economy emerged even later, around 1850 or so. Neither markets nor industry as we know it have been around long enough for us to guess how permanent they’ll be. In the history of the world, less than 200 years is a fleeting moment. Time heals all wounds.

  4. Nice article, I think you have many excellent points that I too agree with… But on the last sentence I think you make an allusion that by not passing of more bureaucracy (any energy bill) the person has done something wrong.

    What are the pros and cons of moving away from oil, especially during this economic climate?
    – Loss of more jobs (the gulf is gone)
    – More expensive transportation, making many people not able to travel
    – More electricity use (because people will not be able to use gas powered anything)

    There are of course good benefits for the environment. However, the meat and potatos of this:
    – Where will the money come from to fund this transition? The USA is broke
    – Is there any existing infrastructure in place now?

    This type of transition (if an energy bill moving away from oil) would have to be done slow. This is at least a 10 year shift away from oil, if it were to be done properly.

    Finally, let’s worry about plugging the geyser first.. And if BP can pull that off then worry about legislation. Also don’t forget a gas mask if you’re going to the beaches in the gulf, the benzene levels are 100x higher than EPA limits. Let’s worry about acid rain, and volatile organic compounds destroying the water table for all the animals. Too bad the media doesn’t report on the devastating effects coming soon.

  5. Wonderful, wonderful article.

    Here’s an idea resp. BP. If USA treats BP as a “corporation” under USA law, BP’s liability is limited (thank the best Congress money can buy!).

    However, BP has caused (by deliberate steps to economise in face of a well-known possibility of disaster) a disaster far, far worse than “9/11″ ever was. BP is at least an “enemy” (as well as a “corporation”) and maybe even a “terrorist” (aren’t we in the USA always over-eager to apply the term “terrorist”? Generaous, one might say, with the appellation.)

    OK, if BP is an “enemy” (in this age of non-state opponents), threat ‘em as an enemy. Exact reparations for war-damage. forget the corporation-protective law. Anyway, law, schmaw. This is war!

  6. “you are part of a consumer market that motivates BP to drill”(!!) This type of thinking has been embedded in standard economic theory to the point that I am almost embarrassed to admit specializing in the discipline.

  7. I would also suggest using less plastic, and acquainting ourselves with chemicals that are derived from oil. Those chemicals end up in all sorts of everyday products. We need to learn how to live without all of the crap.

  8. you make a valiant attempt to exculpate we the consumer, and i wouldn’t gainsay any of your points. but here’s the rub: can we ever expect those in positions of influence to do the right thing when it comes to our collective consumption? for all their pretty words, politicians only care about attaining, maintaining, and consolidating power. businessmen, of course, care for profit above all else. even supposed liberal exemptions to this pattern, like say california or new york city, hardly wet their toes in the pool of necessary action when what the present demands is a head-first plunge, total submersion.

    the only people i have ever known to be proactive in changing the circumstances of our consumption are the hoi polloi. the ones who ride their bikes and take public transportation. the ones who compost their waste, conserve their water, and use the minimum electricity possible. the ones who live and buy locally. the ones who vehemently refuse the ubiquitous little plastic bags given out for even the littlest purchase.

    is it a pipe dream to think even a bare majority of people in this country will adopt these mindsets? the cynic in me says yes, but the more cynical cynic in me responds that it’s an even greater pipe dream to ever expect those in government to take the direly needed actions to ameliorate our present circumstances (see the stimulus, and it’s lack of a modern equivalent to the w.p.a. or c.c.c.), or for those in power to fulfill their duties as public servants and mandate the corporatocracy act in ways that benefit the greater good rather than the bottom line. i have far more faith in my neighbor, and the possibility of cajoling her to action, than in any self-serving master of the universe.

  9. Well, who elected these guys to office and, having done so and having not bothered to watch their performance in office, reelected them at a 94% rate, leaving them in office for an average tenure of 40 years? Election to Congress in the United States is initiated by a political party that puts you on the ballot, but it is made a lifetime office by voters who “disapprove of Congress” by an 88-12% margin but who “approve of my guy” by a 90-10% margin and reelect accordingly.

    This is still a democracy, but it is not a functioning one because barely half of the people vote, and the majority of the ones who do vote do so in a state of utter ignorance, simply pulling the lever for the incumbent, or the one for which they have seen the most advertisements. Blame the politicians for taking advantage of the situation? Or is it the fault of the voters who created the situation?

    • Juan Cole mentioned how to eliminate this problem. No corporate campaign financing. Free campaigns.

      • Sorry, Leila, but you missed it entirely. Let’s try again.

        Two politicians (hypothetically): one whose policies will benefit the majority; one whose policies will hurt the majority.

        For whom do you vote? If you are responsible, you vote for the former (or not at all if both candidates are evil — run your own).

        What does campaign financing have to do with it? Why does the amount of money a politician spends have any effect at all? Don’t say that it’s because she can “get her message out” better. Her message is that she would be a poor choice, and even the worst opponent can make her message known, too. You just might have to look a little harder.

        If the electorate were serious about change, they would do their homework and vote accordingly. A big, expensive ad campaign would make them suspicious, not gullible. Instead, most people can’t be bothered to turn their TV off long enough to learn anything. Four hours a day, every day.

        There will always be power-hungry sociopaths ready to do evil. But when their evil threatens the ability of the planet to sustain human life, one must ask, Who handed them this power, supports them daily in that power, and refuses to hold them accountable? I can tell you who, Leila. You. And me.

        Juan Cole couldn’t be more wrong. All this evil is impossible without the support and cooperation of the vast majority of us. If you stop cooperating with evil, you may lose your job. You may lose your house. You may even lose your life.

        But if we do not stop actively aiding and abetting the destruction of the planet, we lose it all. Even a child can see that.

        Your choice.

        • And when I’ve done bankrupting myself on a futile run for office against unlimited resources, I’ll spend my last three dollars on matches and lighter fluid so I can immolate myself on the steps of the capitol.

          Leila is not the one who misses the point.

  10. This is such a discouraging piece. It’s not our fault … but the enormous amounts of money influencing all the decisions seems to overwhelm anything that WE could influence. Writing and calling congress people, voting – seems like a drop in a bucket and doesn’t dilute the s***.

  11. You are being very objective and academic to call it “Legislative Capture”. I would call it graft and corruption by an organized crime organization taking over our government.

  12. I know you said not to bother, but I have to.

    There is a form of magical thinking that asserts that if we just have a Manhattan project or an Apollo project, we can solve any technological problem. This is false. Those projects had goals that were known to be solvable, only the engineering details had to be worked out.

    Many billions of dollars have been poured into controlled fusion research. Fusion as an energy source remains fifty years away, just as it was fifty years ago. Some problems are intractable. In fact, most problems are intractable due to physical reality and engineering trade-offs. (Where is my affordable flying car?)

    I am well aware of the subsidies and externalities of fossil fuel production. Even taking those into account, it is hard to see how wind and solar will ever replace more than a portion of the 85% of our energy consumption now provided by oil, coal and gas.

    Consider a major move to replace liquid fuels with electricity. We have to have base load (the current that’s always in demand) and load following (people get home from work and turn on appliances) sources of electrical power. Wind and solar don’t work well for these, for the simple reason that we cannot command the wind to blow or the sun to shine. All the money in the world won’t change that physical reality. (You like to bring out Denmark as an exemplar of what can be done with wind, but omit the fact that they can buffer their contribution to the European grid with hydro and coal sourced power from the surrounding countries.)

    It is true that major breakthroughs in energy storage would obviate this fundamental problem with wind and solar. Such a breakthrough would have to be both very energy dense and economically affordable. Unlike the Manhattan and Apollo projects, we don’t know what form the end goal might take; they didn’t require fundamental breakthroughs in technology and scientific understanding, just refining and improving what we already knew. And cost was not really a factor for those projects, as it must be for any storage technology we widely deploy.

    One of my big problems in deciding who to vote for these days is the emotional opposition to nuclear power by so many Democratic politicians and their supporters. They seem to be stuck on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Yucca Mountain, as if 4th generation nuclear power technologies didn’t exist (cheaper, safer and producing much less and shorter lived waste). In the meantime, the Indians are forging ahead with thorium fuel-cycle reactors and other 4th generation nuclear technologies. (The U.S. and India are the nations with the largest known thorium reserves.) Unlike future storage solutions for wind and solar, many of the fundamental technologies for 4th generation nuclear power are well understood, only the engineering details and trade-offs have to be worked out.

    We might have chosen a different path. More than fifty years ago, Admiral Rickover warned us we would be facing a fossil fuel crisis in the early 21st century. We, as a society and aided and abetted by the political influence of the fossil fuel industries, chose to largely fritter away this half-century. Now we have run out of time, particularly if we want to quickly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

    You view the world through the eyes of an historian and political commentator. You seem to think that getting off fossil fuels is just a matter of political will and redirecting the subsidies that fossil fuels get to alternatives.

    I view the world through the eyes of an engineer and technologist. I simply don’t see diffuse and intermittent solar and wind as capable of replacing more than some portion of energy dense and easily transported fossil fuels, particularly in the short-run. I also find that most people don’t grasp how energy intense an industrial civilization really is (1000 barrels of oil per second, globally!).

    Your blog is invaluable, professor. Considering how much of the American media is dedicated to reflecting and reinforcing Americans’ fantasies about ourselves and our nation, you provide a much needed service. You cast your information net wide and your commentary about Middle Eastern politics and history is truly well informed. You provide the context and details to help keep me reality-based. (Many of your posts here boil down to this: ‘The American media is reporting X, but it ain’t that simple. Let me explain.’)

    I am here to tell you that I find your occasional comments on energy issues to be naive at best, lacking both context and detail and ignorant of the engineering challenges. Due to fundamental issues of physical reality and the need for technologies that don’t yet and may never exist, replacing fossil fuels with alternatives is, and will continue to be, a much harder problem than you think.

    • Egon, please read chapter 1 of my “Engaging the Muslim World”, which deals with energy. Wind and solar are not like fusion– they are proven but infant industries.

      • One of the points i recall from that chapter is that the world oil is going to run out soon. But please read it. it is excellent. I also recommend reading the entire book.

      • Professor Cole,

        OK. Your book was already on my reading list so I bumped it to the top and checked a copy out of the library. I’ve carefully read the first chapter and any entries in the index concerning energy.

        Your book shows you much better informed about energy issues than I had gathered from your blog entries. That first chapter is an excellent (for the most part) summary of the history of the West’s relations with Muslim-majority oil producing countries. I would quibble with your ready acceptance of OPEC claims for their oil reserves; these numbers aren’t audited & since their quotas are determined by their reserves, they have every incentive to exaggerate.

        I especially appreciate your mention of oil exporting nations consuming more of their own production as their economies grow. This is a restraint on the global supply of petroleum that’s often not taken into account.

        I believe that my point was not that solar and wind are comparable to fusion, a promise for the future, but that storage to overcome the intermittency problem is. That’s something you mention in your book; storage is a serious problem for widespread deployment of wind and solar power. All the money in the world thrown at the problem is no guarantee of a solution, especially in a timely fashion.

        The single paragraph about nuclear energy on page 33 is extremely disappointing. I don’t think anybody except doctrinaire Republicans think that nuclear power is a magical solution to our energy problems, just an important part of the mix. There are no magical solutions in engineering. Nuclear power is, however, something we can deploy NOW, especially if we want to replace aging coal fired power plants with zero carbon emission power sources.

        The waste problem can be dealt with by not producing most of it in the first place (4th generation reactor designs are much more efficient in their use of fuel) and by reprocessing and burning most of what we have already produced, rather than storing or burying it (the Americans have given up on fuel reprocessing, the French have not).

        Running short of nuclear fuel is also not possible, if we combine breeder reactors with the use of thorium (an element much more abundant than uranium and nowhere mentioned in your book or on your blog; it’s hard for me to take seriously any critic of nuclear power who seems totally unaware that there is an alternative to uranium).

        Finally, your comment on page 232 about convincing Iran that nuclear power is not the way to energy independence because they might meltdown in an earthquake, “Like all reactors, they could be subject to meltdowns, such as the one at Chernobyl . . .” is problematic for two reasons.

        First, Chernobyl was terrible not because it melted down, or even because it had incompetent management that allowed the meltdown to occur in the first place, but because the Russians were stupid enough and cheap enough to build such a reactor without a containment building.

        Secondly, there are a number of 4th generation reactor designs that are self-quenching and therefore inherently incapable of meltdown by design. They should be not only much safer but cheaper to build as well, since they won’t require multiple redundant cooling systems to guard against meltdown.

        Otherwise, good book. I look forward to reading the rest of it. And I really appreciate this blog. But you’re still mostly unconvincing to me on energy issues, esp. as a critic of nuclear power.

        • thanks so much, Enon, for taking the time to read that chapter, and also for the kind words. I’ve been hanging around with engineers and physicists at U-M on these issues and am trying to get up to speed. Because of global warming issues, nuclear may well have to be part of the mix of addressing our problems, but what they tell me is that the world would have to ramp up construction of new reactors really quickly and extensively to have a significant impact on the problem. It isn’t happening most places, and where it is happening in the global south, as in Iran, it is raising geo-political alarums.

          About storage and intermittency, agreed. Also most people don’t realize how tough it is to get even small advances in battery storage capability.

        • There wasn’t a link to reply to your reply, so I’m putting it here.

          A couple of things you might want to ask about when you talk with your technical colleagues:

          Mass production of small (< 1 MW), modular nuclear power units that would be shipped to where they are used, rather than being constructed on site. Bringing mass production methods to bear could be key to a rapid deployment of nuclear power.

          In the news recently has been investment in the development of a 'traveling wave reactor' which could burn actinides, the elements with long half-lives that are the worst part of the nuclear waste problem.

          There a lot of new tech in the nuclear power field; it's going to be interesting to see what works out and what doesn't. I hope we Americans have the gumption and political will to get back out in front with this technology and not just leave it to the Indians, Chinese and others.

          One final point: even taking into account Chernobyl, fifty years of nuclear power has killed fewer people than die in a few months from the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

    • Egon: “Considering how much of the American media is dedicated to reflecting and reinforcing Americans’ fantasies about ourselves and our nation, you provide a much needed service.” is very well said.

  13. Regarding energy costs, Murray Rothbard’s “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution” is absolutely essential reading.

  14. Juan this is one of the best posts that you have ever written. I agree completely. It’s all good until the end when you ask us to hold our breath by supporting the Democratic Party. As a lifelong member of that party, I have just recently decided to withhold contributions until they stop the Global Hegemon project and the unconscionable blind support of Israeli aggression against the poor .

  15. I just rediscovered a 1985 book by Marilyn French, Beyond Power, which is a rather breathtaking indictment of what she terms Paternalism, which could more fairly be seen as the overall paradigm of how society is structured. The future, based on trends she perceived, was one of wealth and resource transfers to the rich taking taking place ever faster, leading to a future of corporate totalitarianism (versus facism or simple dictatorial authoritarianism).

    Her solution was a return to more benign feminine values of sharing and collaborative win/win relationships, versus the deference to the Big Daddy who art in Washington, Heaven, or wherever mindset. Or, IMO, as opposed to taking personal responsibility, which sadly dominates most thinking and behavior. In this sense, think of the power of a religion that insists that its adherent hew to their role of “lambs” before some sort of Cosmic Shepard.

    French’s was an impressive book and worth finding and/or rereading. But the ULTIMATE answer to your/our frustration, IMHO, is a change in values. Nothing else is ever going to do more than momentarily and nominally make any difference whatsoever, in the face of the relentless human greed, desire for control and power, and the institution momentum and power already aggregated by corporations.

    The current “Teaparty”, is a lame joke, and will amount to nothing. But it could be a beginning in that it represents a lot of people who are in their own ways frustrated and looking for an alternative. Their vision, to the extent they have one, is a return to some mythical notion of truth and simplicity. Naive at best, but once a alternative force or energy begins to appear, it has a chance of evolving into something that could serve as a vehicle for an alternative value system.

    And the bottom line is that without a change in our overall value system we are on a collective course with negative time and space.

  16. I really enjoy this post! It is troubling to me when the news of BP abuses becomes transposed in the public debate into abuses of my lifestyle (or as it more crudely put by the impartial moderators and talking-heads: our “American” way of life) or on my hyper nationalism against the UK –what a joke!

    Let’s not forget where we do get our oil: Canada remained the largest exporter of total petroleum in March, exporting 2.517 million barrels per day to the United States, which is an increase from last month (2.490 thousand barrels per day). The second largest exporter of total petroleum was Mexico with 1.265 million barrels per day. Moreover, we import more barrels per day from Canada than from all of the OPEC nations combine link to tonto.eia.doe.gov

    These three measurements seem to evade public knowledge and enable skewing of reasoning i.e our normative evaluation and decision making for who and why we believe we are allies with particular countries in the Arab world, and give us little pause for why we go into military posturing and even wars.

    True, oil is important, but it is not alone important because you and I demanding it to be; rather, its importance is in constant buttress from legislative and industry groups as Juan’s post so clearly argues.

  17. Perfect!
    For too long we have accepted capitalism as fundamental to organizing our society, as opposed to its real, and essential, function which is to provide goods and services.

    Capitalism has only one guiding principle – make as much money as you can, any way you can. Nothing wrong with that as long as societies can establish limits to prevent harm to the common good. Lobbying and legislative capture are profoundly correct practices for corporation and industries if they lead to making more money, as are cost savings that result when pollution is substituted for containment and treatment.

    Maybe the spill will change our perspective and give our legislatures the guts to work for the common good. But most likely we will have to wait until the Republican Party can empathize with the working population, or when pigs fly – whichever comes sooner.

  18. “reformulate energy policy away from petroleum”

    To what? If you do not like America’s auto culture, the solution is simple, high density housing. Unfortunately that means living in a tiny apartment Japanese style, not a McMansion. Try selling that to your neighbors who are fleeing Detroit for the ‘burbs. Petroleum is the only fuel that works for America’s lifestyle. I might add the US government is the single largest user of everything in the world. Less petroleum use is inconsistent with a large centralized government.

    BP relied on a safety device, a blow off protector, it is not clear why that failed. Any discussion of the failure of Deep Water Horizon should center on that, as it is the most important safety device on all oil rigs. But then again it was made by an American manufacturer.

    As to Pres Reagan, his administration was in many ways just a continuation and enhancement of the Carter administration. Airline deregulation, Operation eagle claw, military build all under Carter. Operation Eagle Claw in particular set the stage for a future of ill conceived military operations.

  19. Excellent article, Juan, Please keep up the good work.

    There are two things Americans can start doing now: organizing, and doing political work. “doing political work” does NOT mean commenting on websites that are already favorable to your own views; doing political work means getting out on streetcorners, knocking on doors, making cold phone calls, and otherwise engaging with your fellow citizens whom you otherwise wouldn’t have met.

    Moveon.org is a good model for organizing, they just need to get a little more radical and understand that 70% or so of all Democratic party office-holders, at all levels throughout the country, are essentially corporate-owned, and are not the people we need in office. I see an organization which consciously organizes to have both a “moderate” and a “radical” wing, the first working politely through the Democratic Party to get rid of corporate Democrats, the second working more noisily outside the Democratic party to 3rd party candidates on the ballot against the worst of these corporate Democrats, and having organization members change party registrations as often as state laws and tactical maneuvers may dictate. It is also necessary to organize around goals, not ideologies: the goals are a reformed (non-petroleum-addicted) economy, a Constitutional Amendment ending corporate personhood, and major reforms in election finance and lobbying regulations. A lot of people share these goals, or can be convinced to share these goals, not nearly as many will ever share the same ideologies.

    I discuss this further in the “political ron” page of my website, http://www.philosophical-ron.com . The 12-page article on the “philosophical ron” page of that website is primarily concerned with outlining the democratic revolution of the social sciences that we need for the internet age, however the “politics” sub-section of that article has more on the deep roots of our political behavior and how those roots have become ‘twisted’ in our American political institutional structures, which may also be helpful for Americans and others seeking positive changes to prevent our civilization from choking on its own waste products.

  20. I live in Indiana and had no idea of the BP refinery doing so much damage to Lake Michigan.

    I’ve long traveled the Gary northwest Indiana area and for those of you who have never seen it… … well it is a crime against humanity. What I’m sure was once one of the most beautiful slices of Indiana is a cesspool of toxins and industrial ugliness.

    Greatest generation my ass.

    • Juan, thanks again for such a wonderful piece.
      Enon, doesn’t part of the solution NEED to be greatly reduced energy consumption? For example, my computer although wasteful is far more powerful and efficient than IBM’s original big blue.
      jharp, Gary actually looks better and smells better than it did 40 years ago. Seeing it as a child truly changed how lived my life as an adult.

  21. Back in the day, we used to say, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I like being absolved as much as the next person, but I don’t really believe it.
    Organizing is mostly about communication, and that isn’t done only on street corners, particularly in this wired age. The other thing we need to do is stop reducing everything to “politics” (the quotes are very intentional). People mistrust “politicians” (these quotes intentional also) whether they call themselves Left or Right. Why don’t we start talking in terms people can really relate to, like helping each other, creating a better life for ourselves and our children, preventing harm? The people on the street corners who don’t already wholeheartedly agree with you are much more likely to listen to that someone standing on a big soapbox talking a bunch of canned slogans and political dogma.

  22. what you write scares me to death and i had 2 tours in nam. the “hoi paloy” when they are confronted with these issues have no idea of what to do. i dont either so i just keep voting for the new guy hoping if we throw enough on the wall, some of it will stick. keep on writing juan, maybe someone will listen.

  23. Saint Raygun did gut all initiatives for energy independence his first day in office and gave the market totally to big oil.

    Good points in the article but I disagree that we do not share in the blame as every time we fill up a gas tank, or vote for asses (or fail to vote and fail to support good candidates) or fail to hold OUR government accountable (thanks Dick Cheney, you in jail yet?).

  24. It is insulting and frustrating when people announce that the BP horror, and other energy related disasters like the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster; is the fault of the American People. These people also say American’s are addicted to oil & big cars and wasting electricity, and so on.

    But when the oil companies raised prices to $5 -$6 a gallon a couple of years ago, what happened? Americans promptly cut back on our fuel consumption, by a LOT. We used less gas & oil and Uh-Oh! Oil companies lost money. So they flooded us with cheap fuel, as you point out subsidized by our Government, so not so cheap after all.

    When we have heat waves, people DO turn off our small appliances, we stop using big appliances at Peak Hours, we adjust our thermostats, we save energy. And our electric bill are raised, because the energy companies are loosing money. If we conserve water, water rates are raised.

    So pundits and politicians and BP reps (probably paid by Wall Street/BP/Big Energy) are pointing their nasty little fingers at Americans, alleging we’re addicted to wasting energy and it is OUR FAULT, blah blah blah because We Americans are Demanding Huge Cars and energy wasting TV sets, and so on.

    When Carter asked us to conserve energy, we DID SO; we drove 55, we bought smaller more efficient cars, we used car pools, and we adjusted our thermostats. And the energy companies LOST MONEY. So they flooded the US with cheap fuel and electricity, and ‘brought back’ huge gas-guzzlers. And now we’ve reached Peak Oil, and the Earth ocean’s are heating up, and horrific amounts of polluting oil is being ‘spilled’ into the seas.

    And they say it is Our Fault, and American’s can’t and won’t live carefully, or conserve.

    This is a lie.

  25. for Who What Where: You stated that it is not clear why the blowout preventer failed.

    In fact, it is now known that for many weeks before the accident, BP was cutting corners on the safe operation of the bore and the drilling sequences. The original source for this data was the NY Times, but summarized here by Jed Lewison for your reading pleasure:

    Among the decisions by BP that led to the disaster:

    1. BP saved $7 to $10 million by using a cheaper — but less reliable — method to complete the well casing. The so-called “tapered string” meant the well had less capacity to resist upward pressure caused by gas bubbles.

    2. BP ignored advice from Halliburton to deploy devices that would have given the well additional stability because they would have taken too long — 10 hours — to install.

    3. BP did not fully circulate drilling mud which would have created better conditions for doing cement work. The reason: fully circulating the drilling mud would have taken 12 hours.

    4. BP did not run a comprehensive test on the cementing job even though its own engineers had grave concerns about the quality of the cement work. Again, the reason was time: the test would have taken 12 hours.

    Clearly, BP and its employees were optimizing their decisions around short-term goals.

    link to dailykos.com

    So, let’s sum up: BP’s greed in using cheap materials and short-cut cost-saving procedures led directly to this disaster. It has already been documented – weeks ago – that the Blowout Preventer was damaged by BP’s insistence on rushing, that they knew it was damaged and that they continued operations anyway. It has also been documented that BP knowingly deployed an incorrectly set up Blowout Preventer and one without a common trip device (acoustical trigger) and with battery problems in one of the two controllers.

    Summary: We know exactly what caused this: BP’s corporate greed overriding any common sense standard industry practices to the point of sheer recklessness.

  26. I’ve said this several times on this and other blog sites: I worked in the semiconductor materials and devices field for several years in the seventies and eighties. We produced solar panels that were almost comparative in price per megawatt with oil produced electricity. That research and development work was shut down by big oil and other major energy producers.

    Prior to working in the semiconductor field I worked in the oil industry for several years. My experience in that field was that the major players in the oil industry are dishonest people.

    I have a diploma in Chemistry a BSc in Chemical Engineering and about forty years experience in the technical field. I find that some technical people are interesting and well rounded, like me, and others are pedantic, redundant and ill-informed.

  27. On target, and with unusual clarity you’ve touched on the key problem of our time: the ills of our time are often tied to our broken political system, and the essential need for a REFORM MOVEMENT to restore democratic representation to our Republic before it is gone completely.

  28. The government has now thrown off the illusion that it works for the common citizen. Every politician campaigns on the same promises to the voters. Every election we get the same thing result. Follow the money…big business really doesn’t care about party. They will support and capture who has the best chance of winning. Why do you think that Obama received huge amounts of cash from Wall Street and Big Oil versus John McCain? It had nothing to do with party philosophy, platform, or ideas for governance. It had everything to do with who was going to win the election. It did not matter that John McCain was more “pro-business” on the “campaign trail” than Obama was. McCain was not going to win. It didn’t matter who said what. It only mattered who bought who. (After all Obama told the Canadians it was just campaign rhetoric).

  29. “Every country has the government it deserves (Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite”) – Joseph de Maistre. Lettres et Opuscules Inédits vol. 1, letter 53, written on 15 August 1811 and published in 1851.
    – So I’m not sure I can agree with the ‘blame’ issue.

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