Monday, June 14, 2010

Oil Slicks and Abortion: Who do we regulate?

As the nation grapples with the “Deep Horizon” blowout, which will be uncontrovertibly a complete disaster for the Gulf of Mexico and life within it as well as for the people who live along the Gulf Coast and their way of life, a number of things have become apparent. Some of them are detailed in “Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even”, the Sunday, June 6, 2010 New York Times column by Frank Rich. Rich, whose primary theme is the response of the President, details the incredible panoply of disasters and near-disasters caused by British Petroleum, and its apparently complete disregard for the few regulations it has been subject to. He is clearly amazed and disappointed that the President continues to place faith in experts, even those at BP, who had an

“…atrocious record prior to this catastrophe. In the last three years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, BP accounted for ‘97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors’ — including 760 citations for ‘egregious, willful’ violations (compared with only eight at the two oil companies that tied for second place). Hayward’s [BP CEO Tony Hayward] predecessor at BP, ousted in a sex-and-blackmail scandal in 2007, had placed cost-cutting (and ever more obscene profits) over safety, culminating in the BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured 170 in 2005. Last October The Times uncovered documents revealing that BP had still failed to address hundreds of safety hazards at that refinery in the four years after the explosion, prompting the largest fine in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (The fine, $87 million, was no doubt regarded as petty cash by a company whose profit reached nearly $17 billion last year.)”

Just to restate: BP had 97% of all flagrant violations. Of “egregious, willful” violations – that is, “we ignored the rules on purpose, not by accident” – they had 760, while oil company offender #2 had 8. Clearly then, in an industry known for arrogance, and for preferring to wield political influence (see: George Bush, Dick Cheney) to actually being careful with our world and our environment, BP stands out. It, corporately (and, probably, individually in its leadership ranks) is the true slick scum, from which the oil slick scum washing up on Louisiana owes its paternity.

So let’s talk about Louisiana. It has a long, well-deserved, reputation as one of our more politically corrupt states. It is the home, most famously until this blowout, of the city of New Orleans that, you may remember, was the victim of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a disaster that the city has nowhere near recovered from despite its absence from the front pages. The incompetence involved in not maintaining the levees that protected the city, especially its poorest parts, and not planning for what was obviously an event that was going to happen, was only eclipsed by the incompetence of the governmental response. The federal government’s terrible response (see: George Bush, Dick Cheney, FEMA director Michael “Brownie” Brown) has gotten most of the criticism, deservedly so, but the response of the state of Louisiana, under Governor Kathleen Blanco, was at least as incompetent – and it was their home state. Of course, in many ways, government in Louisiana has had some of the characteristics of that in nearby places such as Haiti – close collaboration with the wealthy minority that exploit its resources for their personal gain, and, of course, that of the politicians that they pay. It has frequently led to enough anger that populist, if scarcely reformist, politicians have been elected by regular people angry at this exploitation. They too, we well know, have been bought (see: Long, any first name).

The lack of regulation by the state government, in fact its coziness with, the oil industry has been a characteristic of Louisiana. The benefits are jobs for its citizens who work in the oil and gas industry that is so important to the state’s economy (and of course to the politicians who receive “contributions” if not outright graft). The risks are to those same workers, who, like their brethren in the coal industry, are periodically subjected to accidents leading to maiming and death, or, if they are lucky enough not to be sudden death victims, to long term health consequences from their occupational exposures. These industries need to be tightly regulated and controlled, and they can be. As in the case of Haiti (in the 19th century), and much of Africa, and other places rich in natural resources, the large corporations need them. The natural resources – oil and gas, or coal, or diamonds and goal, or tungsten and bauxite and copper – exist where they exist and the corporations need them, and despite their bluster will make the investment in safety, for the people and the environment, if they are absolutely forced to, not just by law but by enforcement.

And then there are oil rig blowouts polluting the waters of the Gulf and the marshes, as the strip mining in Appalachia scars the land there. And then there is Deepwater Horizon, an ecological disaster that may – likely will -- exceed the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, a result of the greed of a few and the lack of regulation by the state and federal government. Or, at least, enforcement of regulations.

Make no mistake, Louisiana is capable of passing laws with strict regulations and enforcing them. Take, for example, abortion. Striving to compete with the many other states that have wanted to take the lead in controlling women’s reproduction (see In Ultrasound, Abortion Fight Has New Front by Kevin Sack, NY Times May 27, 2010), Louisiana has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Many of these laws are clearly directed at harassing abortion providers so that they go out of business, and mainly have the effect of harassing the women who are seeking abortions. Recent laws include the requirement that a woman who wants an abortion see an ultrasound of the fetus within 2 hours of the procedure, having the images on the screen described to her, and be given a copy of the ultrasound in an envelope with sonogram results written on the front. There is no exception for fetal demise, rape, incest or anything.

Louisiana’s governor (Bobby Jindahl) and its anti-choice legislature may take pleasure in their “F” rating by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL); the negative impact is suffered by the actual women who are already struggling with having decided that an abortion is the right thing for them, in their lives, at that time, and don’t need this additional harassment from their government. It would be wonderful if the Louisiana governor and legislator could take the same pride in the rigorous regulation of the oil industry in their state, protecting their people and their livelihoods and the environment from destruction with anything approaching the same vigor.

But they can’t take such pride. Because they don’t do it. If they did, we’d be living in a much better world.

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