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"It is the death of humanity to know the price of everything but the value of nothing." ~Unknown

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Oil Rules -by Joe Conason

The more we learn about the BP oil  well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the more we ought to question the  basic assumptions that led us here. Like the explosion of the housing  bubble that ruptured the world economy, this human and environmental  tragedy resulted from a system that encourages reckless profiteering  without effective regulation.


It is impossible to understand why an  accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster was inevitable without  looking back on an era when the energy industry dominated government.  The oil bidness, as it is known affectionately in Texas, could do no  wrong under the Bush-Cheney administration, which was run by former oil  executives and their lobbyists. Remember that among the top priorities  of the secretive energy task force run by Vice President Dick Cheney was  relief for Big Oil from “burdensome” environmental regulations.

As The New York Times reported recently,  the Washington zeal for deregulation let offshore oil drilling proceed  virtually without interference from government, even though scientists  and engineers repeatedly raised safety and environmental concerns over  the past decade. Warned specifically that the blowout-prevention  technology that drillers were relying on to avoid an explosive spill was  faulty as long ago as 2000, the oil industry did nothing except to  drill deeper.


As for the  Minerals Management Service,  the Interior Department agency responsible for overseeing the drilling  operations, it too did nothing—except to reduce its inspections of  safety equipment. Presumably, the MMS failed to act because it was  infested with crooked officials who took illegal drugs and engaged in  sexual relationships with oil industry personnel—and accepted bribes  from them, too. The oil industry was allowed to drill, baby, drill  wherever it wanted, often without even paying royalties to the federal  government. 
But the culture of American government,  from the executive branch to Congress and even the judiciary, has been  infected with a disease deeper than corruption: an ideological deference  to corporate power, in the name of “free markets” and efficiency, that  enriches a wealthy few at the expense of the nation. While this pattern  can be detected across many sectors of the economy, its effects are now  felt most acutely in the financial and energy sectors, whose power over  government is legendary. Such an imbalanced system encourages financial firms to take enormous  risks, pocket the profits and let the taxpayers, workers and communities  suffer the consequences. And the same system encourages oil companies  to take enormous risks of a different kind, resist strict environmental  requirements, book huge profits—and then let the rest of us cope with  the consequences of their devastating pollution (although we can hope  that BP will pay for at least part of the Gulf of Mexico cleanup).

Free-market ideologues and other corporate  shills insist that this is the most efficient way to do business, which  is true enough for a corporate manager or a stockholder. But it isn’t  very efficient for the nation whose public wealth, natural resources and  future prosperity are depleted by these ruinous practices.

In America, we have been told for more than  three decades that there is indeed no other way to run an economy—and  certainly not if we wish to preserve our traditional freedoms. But  looking around the world, it’s easy to see through those old platitudes.  

Countries that impose stronger regulation on their financial sectors  did not endure the same kind of disruption we did—and emerged more  swiftly from the recession. Countries that impose strict oversight on  their energy sectors, including offshore drilling, are exemplary in  protecting worker and environmental safety.

The world’s best record on offshore oil is  enjoyed by Norway, a free and democratic country where North Sea oil  provides not only a major source of employment, but the funding for  universal health care, education and a panoply of other important  benefits. In Norway, oil drillers are expected to implement the most  advanced systems of environmental protection. That’s because the  Norwegian people own the oil—and the oilmen answer to them.

Joe Conason writes for:  The New York Observer

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