They're Doing More Than Fine on Their Own...
It's been a roller coaster of a year so far for Big Oil. The industry got called to the mat in President Obama's State of the Union, which called for the repeal of fossil fuel subsidies and a specific recognition that oil companies are doing "just fine on their own" (even though the speech featured no mention of last year's massive Gulf oil spill disaster). Yet, in the week since the speech, it seems that everything is coming up roses for BP and Big Oil, serving a powerful reminder that we won't get to a clean energy economy through words alone.
Despite continued environmental cleanup and economic claims costs from the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP joined other big oil companies in reporting strong profits in the fourth quarter of 2010 - greater profits than this time last year, in fact. And as profits rise, costs seem to be dropping for BP, with recent rumors that the company is pushing the EPA to cut back, by as much as half, their estimates of the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon well last year. The amount of oil spilled dictates the penalties for which BP is liable - cutting the spill estimate could mean billions of dollars in avoided penalties for BP, and billions of dollars not available for restoring the environments ravaged by the spill.
These resources are sorely needed across the Gulf Coast, as communities continue putting their lives back together and ecosystems and community health systems continue to show signs of stress from the oil spill disaster. Complaints about the claims process are rampant - from the practices of Fund Administrator Kenneth Feinberg, who has sold himself as an independent adjudicator despite evidence of strong ties to BP, to a recent account showing that final settlement has been issued to only one of thousands of claimants - a business with links to BP! And the government got slammed again yesterday when a district judge held the Department of Interior in contempt for attempting to restrict drilling practices in the fallout of the spill.
As events unfold in Egypt - and the news is becoming increasingly frightening - no doubt more public officials and pundits will call for increased domestic oil drilling to reduce our reliance on Middle East oil (maybe we should question our reliance on oil, regardless of where we drill for it, but that's a conversation for another day). Energy independence is a serious issue, but simply increasing domestic oil drilling cannot be called "energy security" if our energy industry continues to operate with such disregard for environmental and human health, and continues to enjoy exemptions from the laws and regulations designed to protect us all. As the Oil Spill Commission explained, underfunded regulation and failed oversight over this massive industry - with such potential for damage - helps nobody.
Environmentalists, politicians and energy execs emerged from the BP disaster declaring that the status quo was not acceptable and that we could not simply return to "business as usual" following the worst environmental disaster of our time. It's an incredibly valuable lesson, but this week's events lead me to question whether we've learned this lesson - or learned anything at all - from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Is this just another day for Big Oil, or will we join the Oil Spill Commission in speaking up to say that business as usual is not acceptable, and that words - from the President of the U.S. or the President of BP - are not enough to fix our damaged environment and broken energy economy?