As I write, the price of crude oil on the world market is roughly $75 CDN a barrel. That means, according to best estimates, that between $1.5 million and $2.25 million worth of oil is bursting out of British Petroleum’s ruptured underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico every single day.
This means that since its Deepwater Horizon offshore well blew up almost two months ago, BP has lost between $90 million and $135 million in potential revenue from this one well alone – although it now says it is capturing at least half the oil from a containment cap it finally succeeded in installing over the gusher on June 4.
All of that is chump change compared to the costs that the oil spill will eventually impose on American taxpayers, of course. And that’s even if the US government manages to get BP to pay for a decent share of the cleanup (an unlikely result and something the recovered oil will pay for anyway).
The economic and environmental damage that will have been done to the Gulf of Mexico and nearby US Gulf states will cost many, many, billions of dollars. It’s unlikely the total financial impact could ever be properly estimated, since the physical damage to the marine and shore ecology – and thus the industries and jobs it sustains – will likely take generations to heal.
Despite this, as the news coverage of the local reaction to the disaster has revealed, people in the region are hesitant to disown an industry that plays such an important economic role in their lives. When so many depend on the industry for their income, whether directly or indirectly, it’s not easy to cast out the source of their livelihoods.
Less forgivable, perhaps, is the symbiotic relationship that political officeholders always appear to have with the petroleum industry wherever the resource is found in quantity. Despite my affection for him, President Barack Obama is no innocent in this regard.
BP, in fact, has been one of Obama’s biggest and most consistent financial backers. As the news agency Reuters reported last month, “During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP [political contributions] over the past 20 years, according to financial disclosure records.”
While you’re pondering whether that fact has anything to do with the president’s tardy and obviously calculated outrage over the spill, also consider that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had been literally housed by the company for the five years before he was tapped to be Obama’s right-hand man. As a US House representative until 2009, Emanuel lived rent-free in the Washington D.C. home of BP lobbyist Stanley Greenberg, who recently helped create BP’s celebrated marketing campaign as an oil company with a conscience, with green flower signs and the “Beyond Petroleum” slogan.
That doesn’t mean Obama or Emanuel are to be personally blamed for the gross negligence behind BP’s apparent failure to ensure proper backup systems to control the oil flow in the event of the accident that blew up the Deepwater Horizon May 5, killing 11 oil workers.
But it might help explain the terrible timing of the Obama administration’s decision to allow offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast last April. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the flip-flopping announcement that the US government would instead temporarily extend the moratorium on offshore drilling looks not only weak, it’s pathetic and predictable.
More generally, the grease that invariably lubricates the oil industry’s political power around the world also powers a culture of impunity when disaster strikes. If BP’s president and CEO, Tony Hayward, is looking arrogant and nonchalant in his public statements over the past several weeks, it might have something to do with his well-founded confidence that his company will get off lightly for what is likely the worst environmental catastrophe the world has ever faced.
BP will pay out a lot of money in damage costs, eventually. But it is a certainty that the amount will be but a fraction of the damage its greed will have cost the US, and the world. Once again, oil money will smooth the way. As the LA Times reported last week, “More than half of the federal judges in districts where the bulk of Gulf oil spill-related lawsuits are pending have financial connections to the oil and gas industry, complicating the task of finding judges without conflicts to hear the cases…”
As someone who partly grew up in Alberta in a family that worked in the oil industry and who found his first, well-paid job in the patch, I understand the top-to-bottom sway that international companies like BP can have over countries, cultures and politics. But as we can clearly see in the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s that culture that will eventually prove to be our undoing.