BP’s oil spill on the backs of the working class and planet earth

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The collapse of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico continues to tear through both working class lives, and the ability of the Gulf’s ecosystem to create and sustain life.

Eleven workers lost their lives in the accident, and now the livelihood of more working class families are threatened.

A mechanism that should have sealed the well in the event of a blowout failed, and now hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are spilling out, threatening to create another dead zone in the Gulf.

A device, known as an acoustic switch, could have prevented this massive spill. But despite earning almost $6 billion in profits, BP resisted regulation that would have required these devices to be installed on deep sea oil rigs.

While the entire coastal region is threatened, a state of emergency has been declared in Louisiana.  Wetlands and marshes along the coast, already under stress due to capitalist land use planning, are now being threatened with collapse.

In addition, hundreds of families who make a living in the fishing industry are losing work due to the contamination.  BP is recruiting them for “paid volunteer work” to assist in the cleanup, but are denying them basic safety equipment and compensation for either injury or damage to their equipment.

The extant of the devastation is being described as a Hurricane Katrina redux.  There is a general sense of helplessness and malaise, as some held signs demanding help from Obama along the road as he drove through Louisiana.

Capital’s global crisis, thought to be slowing down, is not hovering; it’s dropping like a hammer on both the working class and planet earth.  The profit demands of the current energy infrastructure based overwhelmingly on coal and oil have proved to be an obstacle to transition towards an ecologically sustainable energy production.  Obama’s expansion of offshore drilling, the maintenance of a coal-centered energy production via Copenhagen, and the expansion of nuclear energy production in the US in over 30 years are just the most recent examples.

But as the spill in the Gulf demonstrates, this energy economy is inextricably bound up with the ability of capital to attack and exploit the working class and ecological systems.  Complex life requires more complex ecosystems to survive, but capital has long demanded that we forfeit the very conditions of life for it to grow.  The future of free life on this planet will depend on the working class’s ability organize itself against these attacks.

Below are two articles on the catastrophe.

from Race Wire:

BP Oil Spill Hurts Already Besieged Communities of Color

Julianne Hing

It’s only been two weeks since the April 20 explosion on the BP drilling rig killed 11 workers fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana and triggered an oil spill, but already local environmental justice advocates are saying the impact on communities of color could do more to wipe out the local economy than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the recession combined.

The oil spill, which BP has taken responsibility for but been unable to bring under control, threatens to cut off local communities from their primary source of food and livelihood “indefinitely,” said Monique Harden, the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based environmental justice group.

And now, many fishermen, already out of work since the federal government issued a ten-day ban on commercial and recreational fishing starting last Friday, are signing up for paid volunteer work to help BP with its cleanup efforts. Fishermen with boats are being paid nominal fees to ferry materials to and from shore and load the gigantic plastic containment booms that are supposed to keep oil from spreading further inland.

“We understand that the fishermen who are working with this cleanup are not being provided with any respiratory masks or anything to protect their lungs, just Tyvek suits and nitrile gloves,” said Paul Orr, with Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. Orr said that the crude oil that is spilling from 5,000 feet under the water contains “volatiles” like benzene and toluene, chemicals that can lead to respiratory irritation, permanent brain damage, memory loss, leukemia.

But fishermen are desperate for work, and BP knows it. This weekend, after being pressured in court, BP was forced to retract large portions of an agreement it forced cleanup volunteers to sign that would indemnify it against legal action if workers were injured.

BP’s volunteer agreement also forbade workers from talking about the clean-up efforts without first getting approval from the company and demanded 30 days notice before anyone tried to bring legal action against the company. BP also tried to force volunteers to agree that if people were injured or boats or other equipment got damaged, the volunteers’ own insurance, and not BP, would be responsible for covering all damages.

For Harden, the oil spill itself is an assault on communities of color that are still struggling to get on their feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “You’ve got folks, particularly poor people of color caught in all forms of red tape that are blocking their recovery,” Harden said. “No one loses [developers’] applications, but for anyone who needs government assistance, they have to call 1-800 numbers, they don’t get any support.”

Harden said that several decades of channelization in the region and levy work had eroded the coastal region at a rapid pace–“Every 45 minutes, a football field disappears”–and left the region more vulnerable to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Meanwhile, historically Black communities were evacuated and shut down to make room for oil refineries.

And now they’ve lost their livelihoods, too. “This side of the interstate for all four states is seafood, in terms of the diet of most people and the work of most people,” said Harden. According to Business Week, Louisiana has the largest seafood industry in the lower 48. Annual retail seafood sales are $1.8 billion. It’s an industry that many immigrants, too, especially the Vietnamese American community, are dependent on.

Displaced and now out of work for the foreseeable future, communities of color are fighting an uphill battle.

Both Harden and Orr said that even though the oil spill points to the need for more regulation of offshore drilling, the disaster raised an even larger question. “Is this really worth the risk at all?” asked Orr. “Do we really need to be pushing the envelope in our exploration for a material that we know is not good for us in the first place?”

“Our communities should not be sacrificed for oil, gas, and petrochemical production,” said Harden. “Would the need for BP’s oil be so great if more was done than just paying lip service to the sustainable use of our natural resources and renewable energy?”

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from the World Socialist Web Site:

BP spill threatens vulnerable ecosystems with destruction
Dan Brennan

Thousands of barrels of crude oil continue to stream into the Gulf of Mexico two-and-a-half weeks after the April 20 explosion of oil giant BP’s drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which left 11 workers dead.

On Thursday, a specially designed “containment dome” was shipped close to the spill site. BP hopes to lower the 200-ton device over the collapsed piping on the ocean floor, and pump oil upward to a ship on the surface. Engineers caution that the effort is experimental at such depths, and that it may take days to learn whether or not it will work.

In the meantime, oil continues to gush out into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of at least 200,000 gallons per day. In closed-door congressional hearings held Tuesday, BP executives admitted that the well could begin to emit as many as 60,000 barrels, or 2.5 million gallons, per day.

The spill already poses an ecological disaster to large areas of coastline along the Gulf Coast, wherever the oil eventually makes landfall.

On Thursday, BP and the US Coast Guard confirmed that the slick had reached Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands. Additional reports cited dying jellyfish in the Chandeleur Sound and oil covered seaweed washing ashore. MSNBC reported Monday that long threads of oil sheen have already entered South Pass, a major Louisiana channel with salt marshes that provide a breeding ground for crab, oysters, shrimp, redfish and other seafood.

Nonetheless, the most serious impact may still be days off, favorable weather conditions having so far kept the oil slick miles from the shoreline. However, experts caution that it is not a matter of if, but rather when, weather conditions change and the oil makes landfall.

The most immediate threat is to the vulnerable ecosystems of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. The wetlands in these areas are already under severe strain from recent hurricanes and decades of inadequate land use planning and poor water management. As a result the Mississippi Delta loses an average 50 acres of wetlands to the sea each day, as erosion outpaces the natural replenishment of sediments.

Denise Reed, interim director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans, told the New York Times, “The trouble with our marshes is they’re already stressed, they’re already hanging by a fingernail.” The additional impact of oil could mean destruction.

The wetlands along the Gulf Coast provide a number of vital ecological services, not least of which is habitat for seafood. Commercial fishing, together with the oil industry, dominates the local economy. Louisiana is responsible for nearly a third of the country’s fish catch. The state is the largest producer of oysters in the world, responsible for about 250 million pounds each year. Oysters, the larvae of shrimp and fish, and crabs are among the most vulnerable marine animals due to their relative immobility.

Charter boat captain Dan Dix spoke of the disaster facing the fishing industry in an interview with Reuters. “Our biggest concern is that the oil comes in in any kind of volume and settles in the cane,” he said. “Once it settles it destroys the cane and kills the shrimp. If you kill the shrimp, you kill the fish that feed off the shrimp, and if you kill the fish then there is nothing left in the Gulf of Mexico. That would absolutely be a disaster for years and years.”

The government has closed waters for fishing from the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Florida’s Pensacola Bay.

The potential devastation extends well beyond fish stocks. The wetlands along the coast provide protection from storms and rising sea levels. Healthy wetland ecosystems are able to store water, filter pollution and stabilize shorelines from the forces of erosion. If large amounts of oil wash up, it could kill the grasses that provide the foundation of the ecosystem.

“The vegetation is what holds these islands together,” Garret Graves, director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, explained to the New York Times. “When you kill that, you just have mud, and that just gets washed away.”

The loss of more wetlands would mean greater vulnerability to hurricanes like Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. To make matters worse, scientists expect rising sea levels in the Gulf and intense storms to result from climate change.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, up to 20 national wildlife refuges face major oil contamination. Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Breton Island and all of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana, is an essential habitat for dozens of birds, including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, and royal, Caspian and Sandwich terns.

Reidar Hindrum, a scientist and oil cleanup expert who works for Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management, told the World Socialist Web Site that removing the oil from the mud and grasslands of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast will likely prove far more difficult than the cleanup for the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

“It will be very difficult,” Hindrum said. “The oil is likely to settle down into the mud. Ultimately to really remove the oil would require removing the vegetation.”

The oil spill could not have happened at a worse time for many bird species. David Viker, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant regional director for migratory birds in the Southeast Region, noted that we are currently near the peak of the trans-Gulf migration season.

Hindrum, who worked on a Norwegian delegation during cleanup after the Exxon disaster, said that the effects of oil spills on birds and other forms of wildlife continue for years. “We tend to focus on the oil on birds and their feathers,” Hindrum said. “But in the long-term, their survival will also depend on how much the prey of the birds is affected.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service described a few other nature areas that may see devastation as a result of the oil slick reaching the shore.

• Bon Secour Refuge in Alabama contains 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. Refuge beaches serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. More than 370 species of birds have been identified on the refuge during migratory seasons, including ospreys and herons.

• Grand Bay Refuge spans 10,200 acres in Mississippi and Alabama. Species found at the refuge include the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker and brown pelican.

• Mississippi River Delta Refuge covers 48,800 acres of marshlands and open water. It provides sanctuary and habitat for wintering waterfowl, American alligator, Brown Pelican, Arctic peregrine falcon, deer, swamp rabbits and piping plover. The marshes and waterways support a diversity of fish species, including speckled trout, redfish, flounder, catfish and largemouth bass.

A particularly striking symbol of the danger to wildlife in the refuge is the brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana. It was only recently removed from the endangered species list. The brown pelican nests on wetlands of the Gulf Coast in areas nearest the oil spill.

While thousands of feet of boom have been placed at points around the refuges that the brown pelican inhabits, huge portions of the wildlife refuges remain unprotected. The booms themselves provide only limited protection in the event of rough seas.

“Our experience is that when the wave exceeds three to four meters of height you cannot use the oil booms,” Hindrum of Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management said. “It can protect only small areas such as bays.”

“You can’t boom the entire 60-mile-long [Breton Island] refuge,” Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Greenwire. “We can’t protect all the birds. We are focused on the nesting brown pelicans because they are a stationary resource.” This piecemeal approach has been criticized by bird advocates, who fear the spill could decimate the bird species in the area.

In addition to booms, a variety of other measures, such as controlled burns and chemical dispersants, have been deployed in an attempt to avoid some of the worst consequences. However these measures are not without dangers of their own.

In particular, the impact from the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants is highly uncertain. Dispersants do not remove oil; rather they dilute the oil slick by breaking it down into small droplets. The precise chemical composition of the dispersants is unknown, as they are protected as company trade secrets. And while there is certainly some benefit to reducing the concentration at the surface, the trade-offs, particularly for marine organisms, are ultimately not well known.

At this stage of the disaster there is inevitably a high degree of uncertainty as to the extent and location of the coming damage, both to the environment and the well being of multitudes of people who depend upon it. However, as the thousands of barrels each day continue to gush forth, it becomes more and more likely that this will be one of the worst environmental disasters in US history.

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10 thoughts on “BP’s oil spill on the backs of the working class and planet earth”

  1. This is terrifying. On top of the recent mine disasters and the explosion at an oil refinery in Anacortes, WA it just seems like the capitalist infrastructure itself is decaying fast. “Budget cuts” are not just in the public sector, like you say Jubayr, BP divested from basic safety and infrastructure in order to keep their profit rates up, and other private firms are doing the same. Oil extraction itself tends to follow paths of ruthless primitive accumulation in terms of colonization, theft of land and labor, and ecological destruction, but now the actual infrastructure used to process energy is facing another type of primitive accumulation. The capitalists are achieving “Free inputs into the system” as Loren Goldner would put it , by forcing the process of reproducing capital and labor to the breaking point, to the point where nature and the working class cannot regenerate, cannot even recuperate to the point where the capitalists can exploit them again tomorrow.

  2. mamos, i think what you’ve described is important for understanding both the general and particular objective laws and needs of capital.

    much of the coverage about the disaster has centered on the decisions by BP to forgo installing basic safety mechanisms. in one sense, this particular event is due to completely subjective decisions by capitalists.

    their is truth to this. a recent article on the Senate hearings reveal that corners were definitely cut, and now the 3 companies involved – Transocean, Haliburton and BP – are all pointing the fingers at each other.

    http://wsws.org/articles/2010/may2010/spil-m12.shtml

    but the need to maintain profits by capital in general is due to the current era of capitalism, viz. neoliberalism.

    here’s an essay by Goldner that outlines how capital responded the falling rate of profit and the crisis of the 1970s by breaking with Keynesianism and attacking the working class. (although i’m not sure this is the best essay)

    http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/imperialism.html

    according to Goldner, the need to loot and cut corners is an objective necessity.

    the effects of climate change and the decision by Obama to expand oil drilling along the US coast can also be understood to be due to broader objective needs of capital:

    > oil is used in almost every aspect of the production process, whether for transportation or by the productive machines themselves

    > the oil industry is composed by billions of dollars in infrastructure that require profits

    > US Empire could be considered in one sense an oil empire; it’s vast control of oil is part of its dominant position within global capitalism; it has committed itself to maintaining its empire through military occupations (Iraq) and financial neoliberal control & support of dictators and rulers in developing countries (Saudi Arabia); the political and military rule of US Empire is tied up with it’s economic rule all of which is centered on oil, among other things.

    this can be taken alongside why Copenhagen merely reaffirmed the centrality of the dominant fossil fuel economies, and why Obama’s last stimulus bill provided more funding to maintain the current fossil fuel energy infrastructure, then it did to provide funding for alternative energy resources.

    in terms of the latter by the way, the US is lagging far behind Germany, China, Spain, India and Japan. jettisoning the broader fossil fuel economy would put the US in a subservient position to these other nation states.

    as global US military power has been arranged and structured in part around securing control over oil production, eviscerating the political and economic roots of this would leave the military option as one of the few means for maintaining US Empire.

    this is not to say that World War 3 is going to happen tomorrow, but that the current constellation of forces open this possibility.

    just like we’ve seen with the auto industry in the US, any massive restructuring of capital will be taken out on the backs of the working class; just look at the way the midwest has been eviscerated, or how the gains of unions have been attacked over the past 2 years.

  3. quick follow up and summary:

    it’s not just corruption and negligence on the part of BP or those other companies.

    and similarly, it’s not just neoliberalism that must be opposed.

    it’s the task of revolutionaries to demonstrate that broader objective analysis that goes beyond reform.

    not sure if i was being clear on that.

  4. This is typical of the roll-back-roll-out capitalist state no? BP gets all the profit form their ‘capital expenditure’ and everyone else pays for the losses.

    Is there antagonism to this spill in the USA?

  5. hey remy,

    so far i haven’t heard of any organized resistance to the spill. WSWS just put up interviews with some of the fishermen who have lost work due to the spill:

    http://wsws.org/articles/2010/may2010/vide-m15.shtml

    at its surface, it resembles the bread lines that we’ve seen develop across the nation in response to the massive unemployment.

    i wonder in what other ways this disaster might relate to the crisis.

  6. Thanks for posting and commenting on this. As many of us out here in Seattle have been saying, these disasters, the ongoing global war against people of color and working class people, joblessness, and the increased anti-immigration laws not just in AZ but all over the country are pretty overwhelming. This past weekend, a number of members of U&S participated in Democracy Insurgent’s women’s retreat. We focussed in the retreat around the importance of from-below, direct democratic organization, and critiqued the limits of the NPIC as well as contemporary labor union structures and beaurocracies, and with labor law more broadly. We also talked about what these organizations DO accomplish; basic immediate care, governmental regulations so that standards are created, and a sense of getting something done. With this environmental crisis in particular, I am still trying to get my head around what a left, from below, direct democratic organization fighting back looks like. In particular, I am thinking about very important grassroots efforts to demand government resources and clean up the spill in the Gulf, but what I consider counter-movements to enlist low-wage or disemployed workers to do dangerous clean-up. Is there a possibility for these workers and grassroots organizers (maybe those currently in non-profits) to build organizations to link the cleaning up the environmental destruction with long-term anti-capitalist strategies for building alternatives and de facto environmental “regulations” that are set by people most affected by environmental destruction and enforced through struggle and environmental workers councils? What does this look like? Right now non-profits, the NAACP and ACLU (I’m thinking of sb 1070 now) have power because they set legal regulations; but we know that these still need individualized enforcement (you have to file a lawsuit to enforce them), and that they take forever, and often do not bring long term change that fundamentally restructures society to make it more democratic and less white supremecist, heterosexist, xenophobic, and patriarchal.

    Does any one know of examples of organizations or instances of this type of long-term environmental organizing that has as part of its program clean-up missions and “real” green alternatives?

  7. hey folks,
    This spill has got me thinking about some thorny theoretical questions which I’ll try to spell out here…
    One of the main perspectives of the Marxist tradition is that capitalism builds up the productive forces necessary for socialism and that a socialist revolution will take over the capitalist factories, oil rigs, farms, etc. Marxists who believe in direct democracy like the Council Communists, the Johnson Forrest Tendency (CLR James, Raya, and Grace Lee Boggs), etc. believe that these means of production need to be democratized; workers need to manage them directly through popular councils and committees. The ecological crisis raises challenges to this perspective though, which the insurrectionist Marxist and anarchists have posed sharply ( folks like Gilles Dauve, or Jasper Bernes: http://reclamationsjournal.org/issue02_jasper_bernes.html).
    Put simply, the challenge is: what about industries that need to be destroyed, not democratized? Do we really want to be fighting to build a workers council at Wal Mart, Arby’s, or British Pretroleum?
    The insurrectionists and some primitivists and deep ecologists conclude that capitalism is so barbaric it leaves us nothing to work with – we need to destroy the means of production and start over. I disagree – that will lead to famine, because with the world’s current population we need to transform the existing industrial infrastructure in order to survive. But these folks have a point that we can’t just seize and democratize the existing capitalist technology, we need to actually revolutionize/ transform the technology itself, which will include destroying parts of it as well as creating entirely new means of production.
    The way I see it is certain means of production/ certain technologies do need to be seized and democratized through workers councils. For example, farms, public transportation, power plants, etc. Some of them will then need to be transformed – for example the machinery in auto plants could be used to build public transit.
    Other industries will need to be outright destroyed because they are parasitic. Nuclear weapons or the health insurance industry for example hopefully will not survive the revolution.
    But then there are entire new projects that would need to be built to begin a process of ecological healing, cultural renaissance, and redistribution of the means of life to areas like the Gulf Coast, sub-Saharan Africa, de-industrialized cities like Detroit, etc. that have been burned over by toxic capitalism. New forms of food production, toxic waste cleanup, renewable energy, etc. will need to be built. This process of reconstruction will have to involve the direct democratic organization of human creativity (labor) at a massive scale. Capitalism doesn’t necessarily furnish us with the organizational starting point for this – there is not an existing workplace that can be “seized” and transformed, it would need to be created from below.
    Hopefully we won’t have to do this from scratch as the insurrectionists seem to think…. if we seize the means of production we can dismantle some of the parasitic technologies but can use their component parts to build these new projects.
    Finally, what role do unemployed folks today play in this process? Currently employed workers who can seize the means of production will inevitably play a key role, but not the only role. Revolts might start outside the shop floor, among unemployed folks who are facing ecological and economic catastrophe like this spill or Hurricane Katrina that came before it. Revolts might start as uprisings, lootings, prison rebellions, bread riots, etc. Revolutionaries should not dismiss or condemn this as invalid just because it’s not struggle at the point of production. At the same time we can’t glorify it. What happens when you loot all the Safeways and take all the food and burn them down? How do you eat after that? Ultimately some folks might need to seize the means of production from a position outside of the workplace – storming and occupying factories, supply lines, etc. that we will need in order to survive under increasingly harsh conditions. Ideally folks revolting outside and inside the factory would team up. But some of the resources currently sunk in ecological destructive mean of production would need to be removed from the factories and redistributed. We’d have to move from looting and occupying consumer goods which would be used up fast to looting and occupying the machinery that makes those goods, even if in some cases that means removing them from their context in the current productive apparatus rather than simply taking that apparatus over.
    I’m sorry if this sounds abstract right now. I have a vague sense of the general questions this involves but now need to think through concretely what it would look like in particular. That’s where CG’s questions are important – what are some specific examples of working class organizations that have tried to do ecological reconstruction work from below and how do the do it?

  8. One thing that hasn’t gotten much discussion yet (largely because it is hopefully further away in the future) is the impact of the oil spill on South Florida. Tourism dollars represent the overwhelming majority of Miami and South Florida’s economy (especially with the collapse of finance and real estate). If the everglades, keys, and beautiful beaches of South Florida become suffocated by tar, there is a real threat to our economy. Miami has been hit harder than other regions due to already bad poverty (3rd poorest city in the US), and an economy based on failed industries (finance, real estate, luxury hotels and restaurants). This could be a tipping point which sends south florida into a nose-dive, decreasing home values further (you can buy a home for 30-75k$ in some areas now), spurring unemployment, and destroying already fragile industries.

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