Revolution #201, May 16, 2010

The Oil Spill Disaster… And a System NOT Fit to Be the Planet's Caretakers

Editors' Note: The following article draws on a May 4 talk given by Raymond Lotta on the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster, at Revolution Books in New York City; audio of the talk is available for download at

A massive oil spill is taking place in the Gulf of Mexico—a devastating disaster that threatens to become an unparalleled environmental catastrophe.

The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, operated by British Petroleum (BP), killed 11 workers and unleashed an underwater volcano of gushing oil from one mile below the water's surface. Estimates are that 210,000 gallons of oil are spewing out every day; the area covered by the spill stretches 240 miles east to west and 100 miles north to south. And the spill continues to spread.

The spill endangers fragile salt marshlands, fresh-water ponds, creeks, lakes, and other wetlands around the Gulf region, which contains up to 40% of total U.S. wetlands. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates at least 400 species—from shrimp to pelicans to river otters and many others—could be impacted by the oil, including a dozen considered endangered.

Oil has already hit offshore islands. But the danger is not only to ecosystems on shore. Oil spills can be devastating to species living in the sea, and there are interactions between marine and shore life in the life cycles of many species. Around this time of the year, the eggs and larvae of dozens of species of fish and shellfish spend their earliest days floating on the water surface, where the oil from the spill sits. The oil is also lethal to adult turtles, dolphins, and fish. Already, more than 30 loggerhead sea turtles have washed onto beaches, their flesh oozing blood. A biologist told the New York Times, "The iconic images of oiled seabirds are just the tip of the iceberg, because oil spills affect life up and down the food chain."

And the poisonous effects of the oil are long-lasting. A British marine biologist pointed out some frightening facts: "That part of the gulf's coastline consists of a sedimentary shore with lots of muddy inlets. The oil will penetrate into the mud, and because it contains no oxygen the oil will not biodegrade. For generations, any disturbance of the sediment will bring oil back to the surface and that will happen over a very large area."

BP moved to supposedly limit the flow of oil by placing a "containment dome" over the gushing well—but so far they have failed in that attempt. According to many estimates, it could take as long as six months to actually stanch the leak.

Not an Accident

This environmental disaster was not an "unavoidable accident." It certainly wasn't an "act of god." Oil well blowouts like this are not uncommon. But BP has refused to spend money and effort on safety and environmental measures and equipment. BP  has been packaging itself as a "green" company, even branding itself as "Beyond Petroleum." But this "green" corporation, along with other major oil corporations, was able to block regulations requiring installation of a device called an "acoustic switch" that triggers an underwater valve to shut down a well in case of a blowout—finding the $500,000 cost of the device too high.

But what is the cost—to all life in this whole region and beyond, including humans—of what the BP spill is doing to ecosystems on a vast scale?

BP tried to initially downplay the seriousness of the current spill—until it could no longer hide the fact that oil was gushing out at five times the rate BP was claiming. This corporation has been involved in a series of environmental disasters, including repeated spills in Alaska from corroded oil pipes. BP has been fined millions of dollars for violations of the Water Pollution Control Act. And in the year before this current spill, BP aggressively cut back to save $4 billion in operating costs.

As outrageous and immoral as all this is, BP isn't a criminal acting alone—it has had the open backing of the government. The Obama administration approved BP's bid to drill in the Gulf in February 2009, despite BP's record. The U.S. Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) used a loophole in the law to exempt BP from environmental restrictions. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, "MMS exempts hundreds of dangerous offshore oil drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico every year."

BP's plan and environmental impact statement for the Deepwater Horizon drilling project claimed it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities." BP said any spill would likely not cause much damage because the oil platform was too far from shore and that "response capabilities" would be adequate—so "no significant adverse impacts are expected." All this is now exposed as bald-faced lies.

Just a month ago Obama lifted a decades-long moratorium on offshore drilling and proposed massively expanding offshore U.S. drilling into new areas in Alaska, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast from Maryland to Florida. Obama himself offered this assurance: "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills."

Obama and his administration are now saying BP is responsible and will be made to pay for the cost of the spill, and that they are rethinking the ending of the offshore drilling moratorium. This is nothing but cover-your-ass hypocrisy.

What dollar amount can be put on the incredible harm being done to all kinds of animal and plant life—including those in peril of dying out forever—through this oil spill?

In a May 7 press release, the Center for Biological Diversity exposed how the MMS approved 27 new offshore drilling projects since the first day of the BP spill—"26 under the same environmental review exemption used to approve the disastrous BP drilling that is fouling the Gulf and its wildlife." Two of those approvals for drilling operations were awarded to BP.

The truth is this monstrous environmental disaster had very definite causes in the short-sighted, profit-driven activity of a capitalist corporation—and official U.S. government policy which encouraged and enabled such activity.

Something Deeper at Work

But what is actually behind the drive to expand the drilling for oil in places like the Gulf? To get at the deeper reality, we have to come to grips with the fact that there is much more to this oil spill than the greed of a giant oil company (or even the whole oil industry) and the policies—as outrageous as they are—of any one government. What we're seeing here are the workings of an economic and political system: the system of capitalism-imperialism.

Obama and other world "leaders" are not, and cannot be, caretakers of the planet—because they are caretakers of a system that is, by its very nature, behind the environmental emergency confronting humanity.

The current energy system of extracting oil, coal, and gas (known as fossil fuels) is tremendously profitable. This is why this system based on fossil fuels is the dominant form of energy used in the world, despite the fact that it is tremendously destructive to the environment and now fueling potentially catastrophic global climate change. Fossil fuel and automobile transport are deeply embedded in the structures of capitalist production and expansion. Of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2007, six were oil companies and three were car companies.

The U.S. is an imperialist power that dominates, exploits, and oppresses whole nations and peoples worldwide—and oil is integral to the maintenance, defense, and extension of this empire. The U.S. military is the single largest institutional purchaser of oil in the world.

Because capitalist development and expansion rely on this highly profitable—and environmentally hazardous—source of energy, the more accessible and conventional sites are becoming depleted. The system's response to the end of "easy oil" has been to tap more unconventional sources, through deep offshore oil and gas drilling around the world. Natural gas and coal companies are also pursuing a strategy of maximum extraction—by drilling through shale rock or removing mountaintops.

Mega-companies are jousting over who will be the first to lay claim to these new sources, to strike deals with host countries, and to find the means to extract this energy. And it's not just a matter of individual companies. There are huge geopolitical factors involved. The major capitalist powers—the U.S., European Union countries, China, Russia, Japan, and others—are all vying with each other for strategic control over regions where new fossil fuel sources are to be found.

Not that long ago, the Gulf of Mexico was thought to have been "played out" as a major source of oil, mainly because the fields known to exist were considered unreachable. But the rush to drill has been enabled by new technological developments. In the mid 1980s there were several dozen active oil rigs in the Gulf—by 2006 there were 3,858.

The result has been the aquatic (and mineral rights) equivalent of a land grab in the Gulf—a process going on elsewhere as well—as various companies stake their claims to different fields recently discovered or recently opened up because of the technological "advances." The following is from an April 30, 2010, NY Times article on the current spill, revealingly titled "The Spill vs. A Need to Drill":

There is another reason why offshore drilling is likely to continue. Most of the new discoveries lie beneath the world's oceans, including the Gulf of Mexico. For the oil companies, these reserves are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and represent the industry's future. Since the 1980s, the Gulf has turned into a vast laboratory for the industry to test and showcase its most sophisticated technology. This is where oil companies found ways to drill in ever-deeper water, where they developed bigger platforms to pump even more oil, where they pioneered the use of unmanned submarines and elaborate underwater systems straight out of a science fiction novel.

What's totally missing from this picture is any concern about environmental hazards and impacts. And that is not science fiction but a brute reality of how the capitalist system operates.

Things Do Not Have to Be This Way

In a concentrated way, the Gulf oil spill is an expression of how this planet's environment and human destiny itself are being driven to the brink of disaster. This is happening at a time when there exists wealth on a vast scale and technology on a level never before imagined…wealth and technology that is in the hands of the capitalist-imperialist system.

People are rightly outraged by the criminal actions of the oil company and the government in the Gulf. But the reality is that disasters like this, and the environmental crisis as a whole, cannot be addressed within the framework of this system. This is a hard truth—but one people must come face-to-face with.

There is, however, another truth. Things don't have to be this way. Under a radically different system, the tremendous wealth and technology that exist could and should be a resource shared by all of humanity and used to meet the needs of people everywhere for decent and fulfilling lives and to safeguard the planet we live on. We encourage readers to get into the articles "Communism and Ecology: How Revolution Opens the Way for Humanity to Confront the Environmental Crisis and Become Caretakers of the Planet" and "Some Key Principles of Socialist Sustainable Development," which are part of the recent special issue of Revolution newspaper on the environment.

We are building, right now, a movement for all-the-way emancipatory revolution that includes taking up major social battles such as around the environment—while projecting and popularizing our vision of a whole new world. And the campaign now, "The Revolution We Need… the Leadership We Have," is aimed at making a big leap in this revolutionary movement. Everyone who is concerned and outraged about the state of the existing world should find out about this and find ways to relate to and become part of this campaign and movement in various creative ways.

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