Obama's Katrina: the BP oil spill in the Gulf

Down with the market measures and establishment environmentalism that paved the way for this major catastrophe!

(Based on a presentation at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group of of June 6, 2010)

* We are entering a period of crises and catastrophes
* The Obama administration as servant of the oil capitalists
* What should be done
* The bankruptcy of the establishment environmental groups in the face of the Gulf oil spill
* The class struggle and the environmental movement

The discussion group this Sunday is on the devastating oil spill in the Gulf, and what it means for the environmental movement. We'll start with a presentation that will make some points on the significance of this spill, the reaction of the Obama administration and the establishment environmental groups, and what we really have to do to prevent such disasters in the future. And then we will have discussion, and I'm sure that are a lot of points about the infuriating things that have been happening that everyone is eager to discuss.

On April 20, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 oil workers and injuring 17. It also triggered the worst US oil spill on record, exceeding the Exxon Valdez disaster, with a gigantic amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. And this oil, which has already reached Louisiana, has begun to reach shore on Florida. It is set to be a major environmental catastrophe for the Gulf of Mexico, and hence, for the world itself.

* The first point I would like to make about it is that it comes as a sudden emergency. There have, of course, been many oil spills before in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere in the world's oceans. But it's not a matter that oil spills gradually and predictably get bigger and bigger, from one year to the next. There can be years with relatively minor spills. And then suddenly you will have a major disaster like this, a disaster that strikes "unexpectedly", and  damages not just one locality, but may hurt state after state, different countries, and the entire Gulf region.

We are entering a period of environmental danger and sudden catastrophes. The American bourgeoisie tends to shrug and think that it can just carry out business as usual. Its attitude is that there are always Cassandras, but somehow things muddle along, so just smile and make money. "Some people worry about rising sea levels, or about the Gulf Stream stopping, or other catastrophes. But don't worry. These people are just scare-mongers, and we can wait until things gradually get worse." But we are no longer in a situation where things just gradually develop. The stage has been set for major disasters, and they will tend to come rapidly and without time to prepare, unless the preparations are begun already well in advance.

In the case of deepwater drilling, something that shouldn't have been permitted, no preparations were made. In one interview I heard with a BP spokesperson, they tacitly admitted that there was no backup plan for what to do if the blowout preventer didn't work. Why of course it would work, was BP's attitude. Why, three different systems would have to fail for the blowout preventer to fail overall. So why bother with preparations for something going wrong?

So there was no real preparation for the spill, and not just by BP, but by the government as well. There are smaller spills all the time, but we see things like the government taking three weeks to decide if it makes sense to use berms to try to stop oil damage to Louisiana wetlands -- will these berms actually do more damage than the spill or help things? That's like starting to debate the type fire engines to buy only after a fire starts.

So we're now entering a period of sudden catastrophes, and it's a fabulous crime of the bourgeoisie that it isn't prepared for anything. For example, if the Greenland glaciers completely collapse, it won't be a matter of a gradual rise in sea levels becoming serious only over decades, but of the relatively rapid submergence of vast populated areas. But hey, just as blowout preventers never fail -- except when they do -- catastrophes never take place -- except when they do.

* This brings us to the next point, the response of the Obama administration. It has been so slow and inept that this really is Obama's Katrina. As I mentioned, not just BP, but the Obama administration had no plans to deal with this. The Obama administration's plan is to let the oil corporations handle things, and the corporations hadn't planned to do anything. Obama thinks he's doing something when he demands that BP take charge.

In the case of Bush's reaction to hurricane Katrina, part of the issue was the lack of concern for the many poor people who were getting devastated, and the racism against poor and working class black people in particular. In Obama's Katrina, the issue is posed entirely as the issue of reliance on the private sector, and the complete hallowing out of the government. The Obama administration had little it could do because it had no preparations to do anything but rely on the private sector, and there hadn't been the research nor the government apparatus to allow things to swing into action.

The government's Minerals Management Service is supposed, among other things, to supervise the extraction of oil and gas. But it isn't just a creature of the bourgeoisie as a whole, as capitalist government agencies are, but it has been captured by the big energy capitalists. It is a rubberstamp for the crimes of the big energy companies.

Things reached the level, prior to the explosion on April 20, that the Minerals Management Service and other government agencies would give exceptions and exemptions to those oil rigs that were the most dangerous. There would be safety regulations, but when BP or other oil companies wanted to drill in deeper waters or in other circumstances that were exceptionally dangerous, so that safety precautions  would be most needed, the government would just grant them a waiver. They should have been shut down, but instead they were granted whatever exemptions they wanted. ("U.S. Said to Allow Drilling Without Needed Permits", New York Times, May 13, 1010.)

Well, Obama inherited the present form of the MMS from Bush. But it's been well over a year, and Obama had just continued business as usual at the MMS. So it's clear that Obama himself has been a creature of the energy companies, and the Gulf disaster comes right after he promoted, in the words of the New York Times for  March 30, "to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time". The Gulf disaster, and his response afterwards, shows that the idea is to let the energy companies do what they like. There was to be no real supervision or regulation. Just rely on them. BP is even given authority over the cleanup, so the various localities have to ask BP for permission to take a step. This also shows the nature of the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before, as an agent of the corporations, facilitators of any rape of the country that the big corporations want to do.

Obama is, however, sensitive to public relations. When things get too hot, he berates BP and says it will pay for damages. But no matter how much BP really ends up giving, it won't make up for the tremendous damage to the Gulf of Mexico, the devastation of the environment and the economic ruin of large numbers of people, nor will it make up for the government marking time in developing alternatives to fossil fuels. Nor will it even result in preparations for future disaster. The problem is that the private sector can do what it wants, and government regulation is a joke, and the ruling bourgeoisie is utterly bankrupt in the face of the real needs of the present time.

* So what should be done? For one thing, we need an end to this neo-liberal reliance on the private sector and  market measures. Instead there has to be serious regulation and planning with respect to energy. There have to be serious safety regulations, actual inspections, and the direction of production. The most dangerous forms of production should be ended immediately, not extended, while energy production as a whole should be subject to a plan to cut down fossil fuel emissions as fast as feasible.  Energy production and distribution has become something of concern to everyone in this country, and around the globe. It cannot be left to whatever profits a corporation most.

There must be a massive program for developing alternative energy and for drastically cutting down the use of fossil fuels. Today the government backing for alternative energy remains quite small and token, except for the disastrous and mistaken corn ethanol. And not just the mindless conservative fanatics but the Obama administration too is in a real push to "drill, baby, drill". The Obama administration has its famous White House organic garden, but it is still pushing oil, supposed "clean" coal, and nuclear energy. And its proposed energy bill was a toothless wonder relying on market measures. All this makes a mockery of the claims by the Obama administration to be concerned about alternative energy and solutions for the threat of global warming,

But it's not sufficient to say that we should support alternative energy. Alternative energy itself has to be under proper regulation and overall planning. Alternative energy, if left to the private sector, can be carried out in a disastrous manner, and various projects can even make things worse. We've seen this with corn ethanol, the vast expansion of which was done under the rubric of alternative energy but actually makes things worse. A hallowed-out, neo-liberal government will make a mess of alternative energy, as it does now of oil and gas and coal and nuclear.

Nor is it sufficient to look toward government regulation of the old type. Serious regulation and planning with regard to energy will require some serious overall economic planning. It will require an end to neo-liberalism and its reliance on the private sector. And we will need an end to subsidies to the private sector being described as an alternative to neo-liberalism. Instead, it is going to require that the working masses strive to have an influence on this planning: otherwise the government agencies will continue to be creatures of the industries they supposedly regulate. All this can, at best, only be partially achieved under capitalism, but unless sometime is achieved along this line, the talk of "green" measures will be a joke.

* This brings us to what the establishment environmental groups have been doing.You would think that serious environmental groups would be condemning the big oil and energy companies, condemning the government's subordination to the oil companies and its lackadaisical response to the oil spill, pushing hard to ban offshore drilling and in general for serious regulation and control of energy, and calling for the development of a powerful movement in opposition to the big corporations and the politicians that shield them.

But there are differences within the environmental movement. And we see that the establishment environmental groups have been embarrassed by the spill, because, you see, they are in the process of being captured by the energy companies too. All in the name of working together to save the environment, of course. So their response to the oil spill has to be constrained to what preserves that alliance.

Take the Nature Conservancy, the largest American nonprofit environmental group as far as assets and revenues. Since the Gulf spill, many supporters of the Nature Conservancy has written angry denunciations of BP, only to find that the Nature Conservancy itself had taken money from BP. So not surprisingly, while the Nature Conservancy allows its members and supporters to sound off against BP, it downplays the issue in its overall program. Its website features feel-good stories about successful conservation here and there, and as of today, you would hardly know the oil spill is a major issue. It does suggest, on a side-page, that you can do three things to help the Gulf Coast: Share Stores, Make a Donation, and Be a Volunteer. But there is nothing about condemning the oil companies, condemning government agencies captured by the oil companies, opposing reliance on the private sector, and fighting for serious regulation and planning.

So this is establishment environmentalism in action. The Nature Conservancy website blathered on about World Oceans Day, June 10, and "how we are all connected to oceans" -- without a single word in this feel-good effort with regard about the oil spill, nothing about the special way in which BP and the oil companies are connected to the oceans and are poisoning them.

And it's not just the Nature Conservancy. According to an article in The Washington Post: "Until recently, the Conservancy and other environmental groups worked alongside BP in a coalition that lobbied Congress on climate-change issues. And an employee of BP Exploration serves as an unpaid Conservancy trustee in Alaska." ("Nature Conservancy faces potential backlash from ties with BP", Joe Stephens, The Washington Post, May 24, 2010)

Many more examples could be given. Thus "Conservation International has accepted $2 million in donations from BP over the years and partnered with the company on a number of projects, including one examining oil-extraction methods. From 2000 to 2006, John Browne, who was then BP's chief executive, sat on the nonprofit's board." (Ibid.)

Indeed, it's been a major debate inside the establishment environment groups how close they should be to the major corporations ravaging the environment. The Environmental Defense Fund says it won't accept corporate funds. Nevertheless, it "joined with BP, Shell International and other major corporations to form the Partnership for Climate Action, which promotes 'market-based mechanisms' to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." (Ibid.) The EDF does report on the oil disaster, but it doesn't condemn the corporate mechanisms that have led to this disaster, and doesn't show much anger at BP.

Thus the establishment activist groups have the problem of their own connections to the oil industry, which parallel those of the Obama administration. The solutions they suggest are market solutions, and they are careful to tailor their proposals to what the capitalists -- indeed the oil and energy capitalists, the ones most responsible for oil spills and similar crimes -- will accept. They don't seek to generate public hatred for what these corporations are doing, but accept becoming a public relations cover for the corporations. And instead of fighting regulatory capture, they join with the corporations in common efforts to influence the government.

* So it turns out that the class struggle comes up within the environmental movement. The groups that are linked to the corporations are paralyzed in a serious response to the Gulf disaster, and are leading the environmental movement into a dead end. It's necessary to build the trend in the environmental movement that will fight for serious measures to save the environment, and oppose the corporations and the market measures that allow them to continue destroying the environment under a "green cover".

If, for example,  there is to be a serious fight against the capture of the government agencies by the energy industries, it must be based on a social force that has a class interest in doing this. That social force can only be the working class and the oppressed masses. It's only the working class which has the interest in radically dismantling neo-liberalism, in instituting overall economic planning and energy planning, and in nationalizing large corporations if that's what they needed. It's only the working class which would have in interest in overthrowing the bourgeoisie altogether when it becomes clear to them that bourgeois rule itself is an obstacle to needed environmental reforms as well as to ensuring the livelihood and economic well-being to the masses.

So it's not a matter that the class struggle can be put aside until the earth itself is saved. If the class struggle is set aside, the environment will be destroyed. The bourgeoisie is today divided into two factions with respect to environmentalism: the section that mocks global warming and other environmental issues, and the section that talks "green" but insists on market measures, and condemns even the old regulatory methods of the past. Only the development of a working-class trend in the environmental movement, combined with a general increase in working-class struggle, can force the governments to take at least some serious measures in favor of the environment. Only a working-class environmental movement can consistently expose the false market solutions, and fight resolutely against the green-washing of corporate business-as-usual.

So long as the economy is owned by the rich and run on the basis of profit- making, the environment is going to be in danger. It is only with the social ownership and control of production, with socialism, that there can be overall economic planning and direction, and the mass supervision of all enterprises. This is what is needed to ensure production is increasingly carried out in an environmentally-safe way.

But today it's not a matter of an immediate socialist revolution. The workers themselves aren't ready for that now, or for anything near that.  But they are the only social force that will fight against the corporations and the bourgeoisie for those radical reforms which they see as necessary to defend themselves and the environment, as it becomes clear to them that such reforms are needed, and the only force that will eventually cast aside the bourgeoisie altogether and carry out a social revolution. It's only regulation and planning where they have an influence, which can stand against the corporations to at least a certain extent.

So we need not just planning and regulation, but a class struggle to rise up that social force that will demand serious planning and regulation. We need not just the "trickle-down" economics of hoping that as industries convert to alternative energy, this will provide some "green jobs", but a type of overall economic planning that regards the welfare of the masses and the provision of livelihood for them as a goal in itself, which has to be pursued alongside the environmental goals. For the pursuit of mass livelihood, alongside the pursuit of radical environmental reform, must go hand-in-hand. That is the only way in which the planning and regulation needed for environmental reform can be enforced against the corporations.

So these are the points I wished to make about the Gulf Oil crisis as a prelude to discussion: the fact that we have entered a period of sudden catastrophes; that the failed response of the Obama administration to the crisis has resulted from its neo-liberal reliance on the private sector for everything; the need for direct environmental and economic regulation and planning in order to prevent catastrophes and minimize their impact; the failure of the establishment environmental groups because they are often linked to the energy companies in particular and certainly always to neo-liberalism in general; and the need to link the class struggle and the environmental struggle. I am sure that there are many shocking features of the Gulf crisis which comrades are eager to talk about, and so I open the meeting to discussion now. <>

Back to main page, how to order CV, write us!

Last changed on October 18, 2010.
e-mail: mail@communistvoice.org