BP’s Gulf oil spill continues to lay waste to workers, environment

In case you were wondering, no, the oil hasn’t all magically disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. Bob Marshall of the Times-Picayune reports on the state of the Gulf:

Charter captain Mike Frenette has been wondering whether the news media are living in a parallel universe. The Internet and mainstream media this week are filled with reports that the BP oil disaster is over, that the Gulf is now devoid of the slicks and sheen, and the marshes are no longer being bathed in crude….”

It’s important to dig deeper into the meaning of this accident and the place of oil in our society, so I reprint here my lead article on it from the current issue of News & Letters (July-August 2010):

BP’s Gulf oil spill lays waste to workers, environment

by Franklin Dmitryev

The April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off a colossal oil spill, brought to the fore the contradictions rife in state-capitalism.

The gigantic forces harnessed by automated production yield just as gigantic unintended — though often anticipated — consequences. In this case, clear warnings about the threat to workers and the potential for an unprecedented gusher had been swept under the rug in the drive for production of that key commodity, oil. Before it is over, this oil spill will exceed all others except possibly the 1910-11 Lakeview Gusher near Bakersfield, Calif., and Saddam Hussein’s deliberate release during the Gulf War of 1991. It includes at the same time a gusher of gas, “the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history,” which could cause additional vast dead zones in the Gulf.(1)

Protests spread, from the May 30 rally of 1,000 in Jackson Square, New Orleans; to the June 26 Hands Across the Sand actions that were countrywide, including many groups in the hundreds gathering at Gulf Coast beaches; to continuing actions like the protests in Chicago and New York (see “We say: ‘Stop the oil!” and “Greens say: ‘Jail BP’“) and the Worldwide BP Protest Days on June 12 and July 10.


Working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is particularly dangerous: from 2006 to 2009, 30 workers died and 1,296 were injured in 632 fires, explosions and other accidents. Many more injuries were covered up. Press coverage brought out BP’s sordid history of safety violations, including the 2005 explosion at its Texas refinery that killed 15 workers in and around temporary work trailers. A leaked memo showed that BP had compared workers to “three little pigs” in deciding to save money by not buying blast-resistant trailers.

Workers and engineers from the Deepwater Horizon have told of the many ways corners were cut and danger signs ignored in the rush to production before the April 20 explosion.(2)

While BP is one of the most blatant killers, sucking the life out of workers, quickly or slowly, to build up capital is the very essence of the system. The latest disaster came on the heels of the Massey mine explosion 15 days earlier (see “For Mine Bosses, 29 Dead Just the Cost of Digging Coal,” May-June 2010 N&L), and three days earlier another explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery near Seattle killed seven. An explosion in February at the Kleen Energy power plant under construction in Connecticut killed five workers.

In the U.S. over 5,000 workers are killed on the job every year, while ten times that many die from occupational diseases, and several million are injured.

Workers cleaning up after the oil spill are also endangered. Over one million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants have been pumped and sprayed into the ocean, with unknown environmental effects. The dispersants’ manufacturer warns that respirators should be used, yet BP banned cleanup workers from using them. Workers are becoming seriously ill from the toxins — how many workers is unclear, since neither BP nor the government is keeping track. Like 9/11 first responders, previous oil cleanup workers have been abandoned when the work made them sick. Shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, specialists with the Laborers International Union warned Alaska’s labor department of risks of long-term organ damage to cleanup workers, but the state and federal governments failed to monitor them, while Exxon tried to cover up illnesses.


From the start of the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been key to capitalism, for the energy to drive its machines for production and, later, for transportation of its commodities, its commuters/consumers and its armies of destruction. Fossil fuel industries, therefore, combine extraordinary political and economic power with a recklessly lethal drive for production. They are heavily implicated in environmental racism across the world.

  • In the Niger Delta in West Africa, Shell Oil pulls out billions in revenue while leaving the local peoples in poverty and pollution. The Nigerian government, on behalf of Shell, viciously attacked the freedom movement, executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders. Fishing grounds, farm fields and drinking water in the Delta have been poisoned by spills equivalent to an Exxon Valdez every year.
  • In the industrial corridor called “Cancer Alley” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, predominantly African-American communities suffer high rates of cancer linked to the many oil refineries and petrochemical plants near them, where quite a few of them also work.
  • Oil and gas development in Alaska has resulted in thousands of spills, smog and health problems for Alaska Native communities. Traditional food sources are threatened, according to a 2003 study by the National Academy of Sciences.

In Capital Marx summed up this aspect of development under capitalism: “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.”


Central to capitalism’s laws of development is an absolute drive for never-ending growth and accumulation of capital, meaning ever-greater domination and oppression of the worker in production together with growing unemployment, as well as ever-greater pillaging of the earth and burdens on its ecological systems.

How incredibly inhuman this development is, was shown in the reactions to the oil rig disaster by the ruling class, its corporations, its political parties and its media. The 11 workers who died were quickly overshadowed by the concern that this disaster not derail the expansion of offshore drilling.

Republicans howled that this should not be the excuse for one step back from “Drill, baby, drill!” while the Obama administration called for a moratorium to deflect pressure to cancel the drilling expansion, but initially kept granting offshore drilling permits and environmental waivers. Obama’s March 30 opening of vast areas in the Gulf, the Atlantic, and Alaskan waters to oil and gas drilling had to be put on hold — but if public outrage fades, it will go ahead.

The moratorium, which only applied to deep-water drilling, was struck down by a federal judge with holdings in several oil industry companies, including Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon’s owner. Even before that, oil companies mobilized against it by threatening Gulf Coast communities with massive job losses. Under capitalism, even bondage to such a pernicious industry counts as “development,” which whole communities desperately cling to as a refuge from the ever-growing army of long-term unemployed.


One of the Democrats’ big concerns is that a temporary retreat from expanding offshore drilling will shoot down the careful compromise underpinning the Kerry-Lieberman “American Power Act” on climate change. Designed to mollify energy giants and ensure the continuous flow of energy to power capitalist production, it contains so many concessions to oil drilling, “clean” coal, nuclear power, and financial derivatives based on pollution credits, also known as carbon emissions trading, that it charts a course not far from business as usual, which is the path leading to climate chaos. That is not inevitable if humanity can take rational, freely associated control of social production and its development.

However, under capitalism, whether in the U.S. or China, India or Brazil, the momentum is to suck up ever more energy, so that even the most determined initiatives to improve energy efficiency and provide alternative sources of energy are not enough to satisfy the werewolf’s hunger, and it will literally go to the ends of the earth to devour more oil, coal and natural gas.

Case in point: the Arctic Ocean. Shell’s drilling project there excuses itself from planning for a blowout on the grounds that “a large oil spill…is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” Don’t worry about the gale-force winds, the subzero temperatures, the lack of capability to respond to a spill in those icy waters. Indigenous peoples and environmental groups have been fighting this for years, but only after the Deepwater Horizon spill was Obama forced to order a pause in the project.(3)


Or take Canada’s tar sands. The extraction of oil from Alberta tar sands has been called “possibly the largest industrial project in human history.” The process uses huge amounts of energy and releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide just in producing the oil. When Dr. John O’Connor exposed the resulting cancer clusters in Fort Chipewyan, a downstream Indigenous community, the government engineered phony charges of medical misconduct such as “raising undue alarm.” First Nations along the pipeline route to the British Columbia coast declared that they will not allow tar sands oil to pass through their land and waters. (See http://pipeupagainstenbridge.ca/)

Easily accessible oil and gas reservoirs in most parts of the world have been depleted. The push is now to drill in the Arctic, in the tar sands, in the deep waters, even 9,000 feet below the surface, past the Deepwater Horizon’s 5,000 feet.

The imperative of production for production’s sake only increases the pressure to violate safety and environmental regulations. Long before the April 20 explosion, needed repairs to critical equipment were skipped, tests were faked, environmental rules were waived, disaster response plans were pure fantasy.

BP’s plans, approved by regulators, indicated that a blowout was extremely unlikely, and that BP could easily contain a spill even bigger than the one occurring now. It turned out that the blowout preventer mechanism was broken (indications to that effect had been ignored); that one after another “solution” failed; that methods such as “top kill” and slicing the riser pipe actually made the leak worse; that even the last best hope, a relief well, was not a sure thing.

Containment and cleanup efforts also betrayed the total negligence and unpreparedness of all the companies and regulatory agencies. There were nowhere near enough booms on hand; untrained cleanup crews trampled wetland plants and nests; turtles were trapped in the oil being burned off on the sea surface.

It is not clear whether dispersants will actually help in the long run. They do not eliminate oil but break it up and keep some of it underwater. Veritable lakes of oil have formed beneath the surface, with unknown consequences, possibly including many more dead zones to come. All of this is happening to a Gulf already suffering from a huge dead zone caused mainly by nutrients from agriculture and sewage spilling out of the Mississippi River, plus earlier oil spills, plus acidification of the water due to ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

BP’s pledge to “make it right” notwithstanding, the truth is that this type of pollution can only be partially cleaned up. There is no technological miracle.

However, we should not succumb to the common environmentalist narrative that the catastrophe is caused by hubris and the ideology of perpetual technological progress. This ideology is the natural outgrowth of a society where living labor is dominated by dead labor (capital) incorporating science within itself. Science appears to have appropriated all the attributes of life, and human beings must serve its dictates. The ideology is perpetuated not just for its own sake, but because it serves to hide capitalism’s total dependence on exploitation of labor and justifies freeing it from regulatory restrictions.

No better is a psychological “consumerism” explanation, especially at a time when ruling classes are forcing austerity on the masses. Consumption in capitalist society is geared to the needs of capital, not of workers. Consumption patterns are unsustainable; they need to change, but viewing the masses primarily as consumers lets the system off the hook.


China, too, shows the consequences of production for production’s sake. There, the world’s biggest wind power construction program coexists with the world’s greatest consumption and production of coal, which reportedly killed 592 Chinese coal miners in the first three months of this year.

Clearly, China is on the same unsustainable development path as the U.S. Not realizing that they were illustrating the unsustainability of capitalism itself, some environmentalists have pointed out that, if China reached the same consumption patterns per person as the U.S., then that country would need 98 million barrels of oil a day, 13 million more than current global production. These analysts overlook the fact that oil use is driven by production as well as consumption, and that in capitalism production drives consumption, that even the consumer is a product of capitalist society carefully shaped by marketing, education, city layout, design of infrastructure, and so forth.

This realization brings new urgency to the category Raya Dunayevskaya made of the multilinear paths of development that Marx wrote about in the new philosophic-historic moments of his last decade. He pointed out that some countries could develop to socialism without going through the vicissitudes of capitalism, that communal forms contained a duality and could be the basis for such a development, but that it would take a revolution to accomplish it — that revolution could happen first in a non-capitalist country and could be the starting point for development of the new society if it “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other.” Today we can see that for all countries to go through the vicissitudes of capitalism to the point that has been reached by the highly industrialized countries is not even possible.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is one of the more horrific examples of the fallout from capitalist development, with much worse to come if it is allowed to continue. Nothing less than a social revolution can break with that suicidal direction and put society on a path of truly human development.

1. “Aggies study effects of spill,” by Alec Goetz, The Battalion, 6/23/2010.

2. Especially chilling was the May 16 60 Minutes interview with Mike Williams, Chief Electronics Technician of the rig.

3. See “Government puts Shell’s Arctic drilling plans on hold” by Tanya Lee, 6/5/2010 Indian Country Today.


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