As oil continues to gush out of the wellhead more than five thousand feet below the location where the Deepwater Horizon floating drilling platform exploded April 20th, the nation is working fervently to deal with the worst oil spill in US history. There are still many unknowns about the disaster, but some important details are being revealed; BP and Transocean Ltd. drastically underestimated the risk and consequences of an oil spill on the rig, BP chose profits over safety and did not install any remotely operated shut-off switch in case of disaster, the regulatory agency responsible for oversight failed in its job and BP has a history of breaking the law by failing to file and maintain crucial safety and engineering documents. The result is that eleven workers lost their lives, four were seriously injured and the Gulf of Mexico is now experiencing a devastating disaster that will impact the region for decades if not permanently.
Although BP and its partner Transocean Ltd. were drilling offshore of one of the richest marine fisheries on the continent and the source of employment for much of the residents of the Southern US, the oil companies did not see the risk of an oil spill to be of much consequence. In a report to the Minerals Management Service that oversees offshore drilling BP stated, “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.” This despite multiple spills and fires specifically on the Deepwater Horizon. The Coast Guard had issued citations for those spills eighteen times in the short nine years the Deepwater Horizon was in operation and the drilling rig was involved in a 2008 incident where it almost sank. Clearly BP was irresponsibly cavalier about the operation of the Deepwater Horizon and the risk of a spill.
The consequences of this spill are made much greater because the complexity of the drilling location and the fact that BP chose not to install a remotely operated shutoff valve called a backup blowout preventer. The deadman switch system BP has stated had installed on the wellhead did not function properly. Without a backup system, the wellhead is spewing oil into the Gulf at an estimated rate of between 5,000 and 1,100,000 gallons of oil a day. Although backup blowout preventers are required by most countries that allow offshore oil drilling, was not installed on the Deepwater Horizon to keep costs down and profits high.
Backup blowout preventers are not required by the US because the the Minerals Management Service is weak and has been systematically corrupted by the oil industry it is supposed to oversee. A 2008 investigation of the Minerals Management Service Denver offices revealed the oil industry was in bed with the agency, literally. The report details drug fueled sex parties with extravagant gifts and tickets to sporting events and travel. Federal employees were improperly paid by oil companies and awarded themselves government contracts for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2006 investigation revealed that companies like BP that drill in the Gulf of Mexico negotiated leases that allow them to avoid paying billions of dollars in royalty payments and prevented the Interior Department from auditing them. The oversight of the oil and gas industry has been corrupted through industry efforts in the same way the mining industry has weakened their regulatory agencies. The results are the same; dead workers.
But in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is also a massive oil spill to contend with. According to a recent former BP employee and whistleblower, the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion isn’t the only BP deep water drilling operation that has significant issues. According to the whistleblower and the early results of the resulting investigations is a pattern of misconduct and illegal activity. If substantiated, the evidence will show BP has failed to maintain safety and engineering documents that are intended to provide a document trail for the proper construction, maintenance and operation of the BP Atlantis, the Deepwater Horizon’s sister rig. The result brings into question the construction of the well as well as the operation of the well and may have something to do with the explosion, sinking and oil spill we are now facing.
From one disaster I propose we look back to another disaster to structure our response. Although there are many important lessons to be learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that still impacts Alaska, the disaster I am referring to is the January 21st, 2010 decision by the US Supreme court, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This landmark ruling greatly expanding the definition and scope of corporate personhood effectively blurring the line between flesh and blood people and corporate entities. Since the Supreme Court has so narrowed the difference between a corporal person and a corporate person, I propose that our legal response should likewise be narrowed. If the difference between a person and a corporation is almost indiscernible, the corporate headquarters of BP, its refineries and its service stations across the country should be arrested and jailed for the deaths of the eleven workers and for the ongoing oil disaster.
The privilege of being a person in the United States comes with the responsibility of consequence when people break the law. When Major Nidal Malik Hasan was identified as the accused perpetrator and the sole person in the 2009 shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood Army Base, he was taken into custody where he remains awaiting trial. I see no reason to treat BP and its corporate business operations differently. Obviously the process of putting a service station, much less the hundreds of refineries and administrative building that make up the corporate person of BP behind bars in our already overtaxed prison system would be impossible. But why we can’t bring the bars to BP? I am sure that bars can easily be affixed to the doors and windows of the buildings of BP rendering them incarcerated. In response to the disaster that is impacting the lives of the residents of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the lives of the families of those slain on the Deepwater Horizon, citizens should demand that their local District Attorneys arrest and take into custody the person responsible; corporate BP.