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an unnatural catastrophe

Gulf oil spill threatens vast region

Published May 6, 2010 8:33 PM

“In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, tangible success; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different, mainly of quite opposite, character.”

— Frederick Engels in “Dialectics of Nature.”

In the Gulf of Mexico, a churning, swelling slick of dense, rust-colored oil the size of Puerto Rico is threatening to overwhelm a huge portion of not only the natural habitat, but also the human infrastructure of the entire southeastern coast of the United States. The oil leak is an ongoing calamity that some experts say could become the worst petroleum spill in history.

The immediate cause of the disaster was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling platform owned by British Petroleum that capsized and then sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven oil workers were killed; since then more than 1 million gallons of oil have gushed from the damaged wellhead, which is almost a mile below sea level.

At risk are not only the vast salt marshes and wetlands of Louisiana, the white sand beaches of Florida, and a huge number of plant and animal species, but also the livelihoods and lives of millions of people.

George Maul, an expert in oceanography at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, has warned that the Loop Current, a branch of the Gulf Stream that flows past the entire East Coast of the U.S., may soon penetrate the oil spill. If that happens, oil could eventually wash ashore as far north as Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Experts have cited the wetlands around New Orleans as a first line of defense against hurricanes. These, too, are in mortal danger from the spill.

BP, despite advertising that its initials stand for “Beyond Petroleum” and touting how “green” it is, has a poor record of safety and maintenance. Like all big businesses, it is mainly interested in profits. On April 28, it reported a profit of more than $6 billion in the first quarter of 2010, up 135 percent from a year ago.

In November 2007, BP pled guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $20 million fine related to a 2005 oil spill in the North Slope of Alaska, the result of a severely corroded pipeline and a safety valve failure. The federal judge presiding over the case put BP on probation for three years and said the 201,000-gallon oil spill was a “serious crime” that could have been prevented had BP spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a “little less emphasis on profit.”

A month earlier, BP had paid a $50 million fine and pled guilty to a felony in a refinery explosion. An investigation into the incident concluded that a warning system was not working and that BP sidestepped its own internal regulations for operating the tower. Moreover, BP has a prior felony conviction for improperly disposing of hazardous waste.

Considering that these fines amount to less than one tenth of 1 percent of the billions in profit that BP made from committing these crimes, it is no wonder the fines have not been a deterrent to further reckless behavior.

Violations at even bigger site

A whistleblower from within BP revealed that the company has had serious violations at an even larger oil platform, BP Atlantis, located 200 miles south of New Orleans.

Last May, Mike Sawyer, an engineer with Apex Safety Consultants, looked at documents provided by the whistleblower, who has remained anonymous for fear of reprisals. Sawyer said the safety shutdown logic drawings on Atlantis — a complex computerized system that, during emergencies, is supposed to send a signal to automatically shut down the flow of oil — were listed as “requiring update.” BP had refused to hand over the internal documents because it could potentially cost them millions of dollars to provide these safety features.

The explosion that caused the current crisis was exacerbated, preliminary reports suggest, by the failure of a blowout preventer, like the one cited above, that should have shut off the flow of oil on the drilling rig; and the lack of a backup safety measure, known as a remote control acoustic shutoff switch, to operate the blowout preventer. In other words, BP’s mad search for profits may well have led to the current catastrophe in the Gulf.

Despite the revelations, federal authorities have allowed BP operations at its Atlantis site to continue.

Ironically, only two weeks ago President Barack Obama, in a bid to placate pro-business forces, opened up even larger areas in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling. The administration has since halted approval of any new sites until the current crisis is “resolved.” But no one can seriously question the obvious fact that the long-term complicity of the U.S. capitalist government with the oil companies, no matter who was president, helped lay the groundwork for the present disaster.