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BP: is the party over?

The British oil giant BP has a very unfortunate name. Every time the world’s fourth largest corporation does something nasty again, many angry minds and itchy hands get busy re-branding it – to reflect the situation.

So British Petroleum, which wants to convince us that it is Beyond Petroleum, becomes Blatant Polluters, Bird’s Pain, Black Pelican, Bye Planet, Bad People… The latest suggestion is Bloody Profits; it comes from ethecon – Foundation Ethics & Economics which awarded BP their Black Planet Award. ‘You destroy our world for profit,’ was the message.      

What has BP done to deserve this?

Well, where do we begin.

On 20 April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico – the worst in the US, ever; the company’s involvement in the dirtiest project on Earth, the tar sands in Canada; and their new plans to do business with Russia’s state-owned Rosneft oil and gas company to drill one of the most pristine areas of them all – the Arctic. And that’s from last year alone.

BP. Photo by James Lee under a CC licence.

‘BP has had a bad year,’ said Jess Worth of the UK Tar Sands Network at the kick-off event of the Tar Sands Tour. Even some shareholders agree, although for slightly different reasons.

Relax, it’s all right now

BP America’s flickr photostream looks like a fairytale – white sandy beaches, tanned bodies playing volleyball, plates full of delicious-looking redfish. That’s from the same place of oil-covered half-alive pelicans, murdered wildlife and dirty, dirty oil of last year.

The company’s regional ‘Gulf Response’ websites have the same anti-depressant effect, using positive keywords such as ‘commitment’, ‘clean beaches’, ‘dramatic recovery’, ‘scientists impressed’ and ‘restaurant business back to normal’.

Looks like a fairytale. And it is – but an evil one.

‘Over 99 per cent of the Gulf is also open for fishing. And government testing has consistently found Gulf seafood safe to eat,’ said Bob Dudley, BP CEO, in his speech to the company’s annual general meeting in London last week.  

It does indeed sound like CRAP (Corporate Responsibility Avoidance Programme, as one Guardian reader put it) is in operation here, because the story from the ground is entirely different.

Oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, 24 May 2010. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under a CC licence.

‘I’ve read articles saying it’s all right [in the Gulf of Mexico] now. I’m here to tell you that it’s not,’ says Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. He comes from Pointe a la Hache in southeast Louisiana, the very frontline of the disaster. Byron says that even though some fisherfolk are fishing again, and some of the beaches look decent, it’s far from the way it used to be.

I ask him what the people who lost their jobs after the spill do. ‘Nothing.’ Despite BP and the government claiming the seafood is now safe to eat, there is simply not enough data to back this up. A shrimp might look and taste OK, but who knows if it’s really uncontaminated?

They don't. Photo by Thierry Ehrmann aka Abode of Chaos under a CC licence.

The people of the Gulf of Mexico haven’t seen BP’s promised compensation billions yet, but they have to cover their health bills. Shrimper Tracy Kuhns from Louisiana says many people, including herself, have respiratory problems they never had before the spill. ‘BP cough’, they call it. Tracy’s partner shrimper Mike Roberts adds that Louisiana’s so-called Cancer Alley, in which people die well before their 70th birthday, is many times worse after the BP disaster.

And the disaster’s psychological impact is immeasurable. Everything changed. 20 April 2010, Mike says, was the first time in 30 years that he cried.

The infamous. Photo by Thierry Ehrmann aka Abode of Chaos under a CC licence.

Unsurprisingly, Gulf locals are angry with BP’s management of the catastrophe. Byron says the corporation was more concerned with hiding the truth, denying and avoiding responsibility than actually righting its wrongs. ‘It’s like dealing with the smoke but not the fire,’ he tells me. Tracy says that as business people, she and Mike know how it works. ‘Companies have to pay the cost of doing business before they make a dime in profit.’ Hmm…That’s not the way Bloody Profits does business. 

Out of sight, out of mind

The oil hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s out of sight, yes, and largely out of the world’s mind, but it’s not gone.  

‘The bottom of the ocean is now like this: a layer of oil, then a layer of chemicals. That’s what’s there. What’s not there is life,’ says Antonia Juhasz, author of Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. In the book, she writes: ‘Nor is the oil gone or the cleanup complete. BP’s oil monster continues to move through the ocean, sometimes washing up on beaches and sometimes content to lurk on the ocean floor, waiting for the next best moment to strike. It hides in the eggs of shrimp, the habitats of pelicans, and even the blood cells of people all along the coast.’

One can only remember Venezuela’s former Oil Minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo who said that oil is not the black gold. Rather, it is the devil’s excrement.

To add insult to injury, apparently dirty business is back to normal in the Gulf of Mexico, even though life as usual is not. The US government is again issuing permits for deepwater drilling in the Gulf, and the first guest to receive an invitation to this filthy feast is – it beggars belief – BP.

The scar that won’t heal

Deepwater drilling aside, BP has its hands in other extremely disastrous projects. Such as the tar sands in Canada. As Greenpeace UK put it: ‘Think of the tar sands as a Deepwater Horizon in slow motion.’

‘The tar sands are a scar on our beautiful Mother Earth,’ says Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Indigenous Environmental Network. Clayton is of the Mathias Colomb Cree First Nation in Manitoba, Canada. ‘[Bitumen from the tar sands] shouldn’t even be called oil; it’s in an entirely different classification of fossil fuels.’

Postcard from Canada. Photo from The Understory (Rainforest Action Network).

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Cree from the Lubicon Lake Band, says her homeland is being devastated by the filthy oil games in the tar sands: migrating birds have massively decreased in number; her father finds tumours in animals he hunts; tailing ponds – toxic waste lakes – contaminate massive areas of once-pristine beauty.

People who inhabit these lands are losing their source of life – and their desperate cries are being silenced. ‘They talk about oil but not salmon, tar sands but not herbal medicine,’ says Jasmine Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation. She is frustrated that indigenous people are being dismissed as ‘exotics’ from history books – ‘But we are real people. We live off our lands.’

The tar sands infrastructure, from mines to pipelines and refineries, tangles the entire North American continent. Canada is even planning to use nuclear energy to extract bitumen from the tar sands.

BP – the latest oil giant to join in the filthy tar sands feast – is not involved in open-pit mining, some as big as entire cities (the tar sands scar is visible from space). The company invests in in situ operations, which produce even more greenhouse gas emissions than mining because of their complicated extraction process (the most common method involves heating the bitumen deep underground with super-hot steam so that it begins to flow. It’s as sick as it sounds).

Just like oil on the ocean floor, this is a case of out of sight – out of mind, and yet it is projected to become the largest source of crude oil in Canada.

Oil sands tailings pond north of Fort McMurray. Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute (via Dirty Oil Sands).


So where does all this leave us?

Clearly – unfortunately – the party is not over for BP and its cronies. But the party might soon be over for Mother Earth as we know it, just like it’s over for those brown pelicans covered in oil, for those wild animals with tumours, for the hundred-year old trees that were growing in the ‘wrong place’ – just above the tar sands – and so had to be cut down.

We cannot allow those responsible for all this to walk free, free from responsibility. And we cannot allow the Devil’s excrement take our lives from us.

Bloody Oil, April 2010 issue of New Internationalist devoted to the tar sands.   

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