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You can't trust Big Oil

Eithne Tynan - Sunday Tribune

"You can't trust Big Oil. The only way to ensure careful management of scarce natural resources is to keep them in state control. Anything else is treason"

It's two months to the day since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig 40 miles off Louisiana, and blame has been spreading farther and faster than a tonne of light crude at room temperature. Blame has become so tradable, it ought to get its own listing on the commodities market. America blamed the British, which really stung. "It's not British Petroleum, it's Beyond Petroleum," cried our neighbour plaintively, and even perceptively, since this disaster has gone so far beyond petroleum that oil is now definitely too small a word for it.


BP tried to blame Halliburton, which had the cementing contract for the rig, and Transocean, which owned it. Both punted the blame right back, feeling how hot it was. Transocean had a nice little $400m insurance pay-off coming its way, and washed its hands all clean. Last week, Congress tried to blame all of Big Oil, and Big Oil whistled and looked at its feet and said "Wasn't us", while no doubt privately muttering, "There but for the grace of God go we".


The plume of blame now seemed to have congealed into a smaller, more manageable gloop encompassing just two villains: BP chief executive Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward, and Barack Obama. America's unluckiest president, who has spent two years fighting fires lit by his predecessor, is going down in flames in America's unluckiest state, Louisiana. Obama is blamed by both the right, with its shocking hypocrisy, and the left, with its incessant, energy-sapping disappointment. He is blamed for using this disaster as a way to push through an energy bill, and for not using it as a way to push through a more ambitious energy bill. He is blamed for ordering a moratorium on deep-water drilling, and for not banning deep-water drilling outright. He is blamed for his limp speech to the nation on Tuesday night, in which the customary tenor of American political oratory – "There's a boo-boo in the Gulf; Daddy will fix it; God bless America" – did not work for once.


He was even blamed, in some quarters, for his face-saving deal with BP on Wednesday, in which he screwed a $20bn compensation pledge out of the oil giant. Republican congressman Joe Barton apologised to BP afterwards for the "shakedown". (For a comic take on this, visit the impromptu website, which includes apologies from Barton to the Catholic church "for our soft tender boys turning into bitter ungrateful adults" and to BP "for soaking up all your valuable oil with our worthless pelicans".


But there is really only one respect in which Barack Obama is to blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and it is that he did not seize control earlier of the spectacularly corrupted Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for regulating energy firms. Americans, like the rest of us, know by now what to expect when regulation fails. The same principle applies to oil rigs as to credit default swaps, but with one difference. No one would have suspected banks of recklessness, if only because imprudence hits profits (so we thought). But who in their right mind trusts an oil company?


Well, some people do. One is a certain kind of American from Joe Barton country, performing unspeakable acts over a photo of Sarah Palin while murmuring "drill, baby, drill". Another is Barack Obama, to his cost. Oh, and another is John Gormley, the supposedly green environment minister, who last week signed off on a licence allowing Shell to drill in a special area of conservation at Sruwaddacon in Mayo.


BP's response to this disaster should show once and for all that you can't trust Big Oil. BP pledged, in its spill contingency plan, to protect imaginary walruses in the Gulf of Mexico; it lied about the volume of oil leaking from the stricken well; it banned reporters from the site; it poured the dispersant Corexit on troubled waters, even though Corexit is described as more toxic and less effective than other dispersants, and even though its former deputy CEO, Rodney Chase, is on the board of Nalco, the company that makes Corexit, suggesting a visible profiteering link.


It got away with all this after decades of known greenwashing. You can't trust Big Oil. The only way to ensure careful management of scarce natural resources is to keep them in state control. Anything else is treason.


Let's hope John Gormley doesn't realise this too late.



Extra, extra: you can still read all about it


Rumours of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated, according to an OECD report last week. This is a relief to a great many people, not least fishmongers and hacks. It will really only dismay those who think the "corporate" or "mainstream" media is a conspiracy of lies and that the only reliable news source is or what have you.


The OECD report did worry about the number of young people not reading conventional news at all ("get me a front-page story about the illuminati, now!" – Ed) and foresaw an increase in that. But the report did not mention – and the pity is that hardly anyone does – the most regrettable accidental casualty of the death of print media. If newspapers go, photojournalism goes too. Text survives online; pictures – often the best bit of a newspaper by far – just don't.