Alexander Cockburn | You Drill, You Spill

Sobering, is it not, to realize that the possible survival of a huge oil company, of several billion shrimp, assorted species of fish and birds, not to mention avoidance of a near lethal lurch in the fortunes of Louisiana’s fishing and ocean rec industries and the future of offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast could depend on a feat as tricky as rolling a condom on the end of a string onto the penis of a man at street level by remote control from the top of the Empire State building.

So-called accidents in oil extraction invariably produce numbers as whimsical and liable to sudden change as the currents that will menace British Petroleum’s gigantic steel cap, a telephone booth four stories high, scheduled to be lowered onto the leaking oil pipe on the ocean floor 5,000 feat down, putting out maybe 10,000 barrels of crude a day. The central fraud here is perpetrated by the word “accident,” which should properly be defined as normalcy, occasionally raised to the level of drama.

Oil spills, particularly from ocean drilling to transport via pipeline and tanker, are dead certs, whether the depth is 5,000 feet or 500, the pipeline broken by incompetence or an earthquake, the tanker steered by a drunk or a seasoned master sipping his Bovril.

As Karl Grossman, veteran journalist who wrote many influential exposes of the dangers of offshore drilling in the Atlantic 35 years ago, recently wrote on our CounterPunch site, “The reality is that wherever there’s oil drilling, there’s spilling. U.S. Department of Interior figures reflect 3 million gallons of oil spilled from 1980 to 1999 in the U.S. outer continental shelf offshore drilling program. As to blowouts, there were 18 in wells in the Gulf of Mexico from 1983 up to the eruption at the Deepwater Horizon rig.”

The useful parallel here is the rate of industrial “accidents” among workers, currently running at an pretty sure-fire average of 15 corpses and 10,950 maimed or hurting workers at the end of each day on the job, with the boost of 11 workers on BP’s Gulf platform killed April 29.

Oil drilling is one of the dirtiest of all businesses, physically and politically. In recent years, BP has spent many millions in the U.S., trying to winch its reputation out of the mud with bright advertising paeans to its green commitment. Along with its greenwashing ad campaigns, it’s staked $500 million on a biofuel research center at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. Every gallon gushing from the holes in the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico sinks the company’s reputation back in the primal ooze of a reputation permanently disfigured by environmental havoc, political bribes and ruthless campaigns against those courageous enough to blow the whistle on the company.

It’s easy to identify the recipients of oil money from the vehemence of their commitment to offshore drilling, even as the Gulf coast faces what may be the biggest disaster in the oil industry’s history in the U.S. and surrounding waters. Start with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who said on the Senate floor Friday: “I don’t believe we should retreat” on offshore drilling.

Landrieu informed her fellow senators, many of them also fattened on the industry’s tab that “What’s important about this sheen is that 97 percent of it is a rainbow sheen. Only 3 percent contains emulsified crude … 97 percent of it is an extremely thin sheen of relatively light oil on the surface.” This carefree comparison of BP’s spill to the glow of French polish on a Sheraton side table is what the oil industry has purchased from Landrieu, who has taken in $574,000 in political contributions from oil companies from 2000 to 2008.

From French polish to cocoa. “What I want people to know is this isn’t Katrina,” said Mississippi Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Gene Taylor. “This is not Armageddon. Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s terrible that there’s a spill out there. But I would remind people that the oil is 20 miles from any marsh. … That chocolate milk-looking spill starts breaking up in smaller pieces … It is tending to break up naturally.

As for Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) described the disaster as an unavoidable “act of God” and called for more offshore drilling.

One of the more piquant spectacles in politics today is the emergence of Obama, hammer of the robber barons. Though his campaign was awash with Wall Street money, much of it coming from Goldman Sachs, whose former employees infest his administration in senior positions, and though he backed the 100 percent bailout of GS in its hour of need, Obamas now floats upward in the polls because voters furious at the banks associate him with the SEC’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and its possible criminal indictment by the Justice Department.

Similarly, Obama now wags his finger at BP and vows that it will pay for every penny of the cleanup. He actually took more campaign money from BP than did his Republican opponent in 2008, Sen. John McCain. The oil money had its usual consequence. Obama broke with a decades-long ban to indicate earlier this year his approval of offshore drilling up and down the Atlantic coast. Even now, despite hasty back peddling, he proclaims his support for offshore drilling on the Atlantic side with proper “safeguards.”

The problem for the oil industry’s offshore drilling plans is rich people who don’t care to have their beaches on Hobe Sound, Fla., north toward the Hamptons on Long Island or Cape Cod marred by crude oil, however alluring the sheen of money may be in the oil stocks in their portfolios. Most lethal pollution in America takes place, entirely un-accidentally, in poor neighborhoods. Not too many beautiful people – unless you count Janis Joplin (daughter of a Texaco oil engineer) – hail from Port Arthur, Texas, where what passes for water looks as sinister as Lethe. Obama has presented the energy industry with another huge present, breaking with a generation-long ban. The two new nuclear reactors, eased by Obama toward construction with $8.3 billion in loan guarantees, are to be built next to an existing pair of nuclear reactors in mostly black Burke County, Georgia. Rich people don’t lives near coalmines or in the scarred landscapes of coal country in the Appalachians.

In the end, greed wins. There were plenty of rich people living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s when the smog from the steel mills brought darkness at noon and the glare of street lamps 24/7 so people could see far enough ahead to drive down the street. One of these days, there’ll be offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast. If they can’t lower that steel condom on, it will take longer. As Dick Cheney, former CEO of the oil-services company Halliburton defiantly out it, “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through

Copyright 2010