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BP oil disaster

Profit system pits jobs vs. environment

Published Jun 10, 2010 12:49 PM

It is an unforgettable, heartbreaking image. A seabird from Grand Island, La., lies in a basket, covered with a thick brownish layer of oil, gasping for air and blinking its eyes as if in stunned amazement.

As BP announced that its latest “fix” had been partially successful, this and other images of devastation from around the Gulf of Mexico region have brought home the enormity of the crime which BP and its capitalist collaborators have perpetrated. The so-called containment cap which was lowered into place on June 4 has had limited success: only about a third of the 750,000 gallons per day gushing from the destroyed wellhead is being siphoned off.

Why is it that we are moved by images of dying birds? On an immediate level is the empathy we have for the life and suffering of other sentient beings with whom we share the planet. But in a more profound sense, it is because at some deep level we realize that the destruction of these birds and their habitats is also an attack on our own habitat, and on our own ability to survive and make a living, although the devastation may not be as immediately obvious.

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, employees from at least 13 different companies were on board. Besides high-level engineers from Transocean, which operated the rig, and BP, which held the lease on it, the workers included welders, divers, rig roustabouts, cooks, tank washers and laundry workers employed by a medley of subcontracted companies. And for each exploration and production job, there are an estimated four supporting jobs in and around the region.

There are 5,000 offshore oil and gas platforms in Louisiana alone, many of which can be seen from the coast, in addition to 17 oil refineries, 74,000 miles of pipeline and 90 major chemical plants. The Louisiana port system is the largest in the world with six deepwater, eight coastal and 13 inland ports. Port Fourchon itself handles 90 percent of the traffic servicing the deep-water oil and gas industry in the Gulf. These facilities exist side by side with a commercial and sport fishing industry which brings in $2.5 billion annually. There is also a large tourism industry.

BP has released an ad campaign costing an estimated $50 million in which its CEO, Tony Hayward, promises to clean up the mess that BP caused. Of course, Hayward will do nothing — it is an army of thousands of workers who will actually perform the cleanup tasks.

On May 27, the U.S. Interior Department issued a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf in order to “determine what went wrong and how to remedy safety deficiencies.” The moratorium most directly affects 17 oil companies, including multinational giants like BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron, that were forced to shut down operations at 33 rigs.

Most environmental scientists have said that six months is woefully inadequate. However, the oil and gas industries of Louisiana, and the politicians associated with them, are already complaining. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been quite vocal in decrying the destruction of the environment along the Gulf Coast, was nevertheless very critical of the moratorium. “During one of the most challenging economic periods in decades, the last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more,” he said in a letter to President Barack Obama.

The environment versus jobs?

Whenever a capitalist corporation perceives a threat to its profits, it is quick to threaten the workers with the loss of jobs. Workers know from bitter experience that these are not idle threats. Capitalists like to portray themselves as benevolent demigods who bestow jobs on those who are “deserving.” But for most workers, their jobs are their only means of survival. When employers threaten workers with losing their jobs, they threaten workers’ very survival.

The workers in the Gulf region are in many ways similar to those in the coal mines of Appalachia. They perform difficult, dangerous jobs for companies that rape the environment and ruin nearby communities. Because they operate in economically depressed areas, the companies attempt to divide working people by pitting those most impacted by the destruction of the environment against those who actually work in the mines and on the drilling rigs.

A list of 100 of the “Most Popular Jobs Where the Majority of Workers Do Not Have College Educations” published for New Orleans, shows a preponderance of jobs related to the oil, gas, shipping and chemical industries. (CityTowninfo.com) Invariably these are also among the highest paying jobs. The bosses tell the workers that they must choose between not befouling and destroying their surroundings and a decent-paying (although often dirty and dangerous) job.

These bosses are not really concerned about saving workers’ jobs. Some environmentalists have noted that should the present oil slick migrate to areas where other drilling platforms are located, those rigs would be forced to shut down indefinitely anyway. The real concern of the Gulf-area capitalists is more related to globalization than to any modest moratorium on drilling. They don’t want rig owners and operators to cancel their contracts and move operations to the coastal areas of Africa or Brazil or elsewhere abroad.

Poor and working people should not be forced to choose between a clean habitat and a decent-paying job. Unlike the oil-soaked seabirds of the Gulf, workers and oppressed peoples have the consciousness and the power to fight the vicious capitalist system and ultimately create a society in which the contradictions between humans and the natural environment are at last resolved.