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DAVID DALLAS: BP disaster demonstrates need for change

DAVID DALLAS

DAVID DALLAS

Call me crazy, but I’ve always had a soft spot for British Petroleum. One of my favorite childhood memories is having our car filled up and serviced at the old Walt’s Gulf station in the middle of downtown Cleveland, Mississippi. Mr. Walt had a young man named Charles that worked for him. Charles would let me help him fill up the car and check the oil and tire pressure.

A big burly man with a laughing smile, Charles would tell me, “Everybody gets gas.” As I was barely in grade school, it was likely the first double entendre I picked up on. I still think being a gas station attendant had to be one of the coolest jobs there ever was. It’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, if I couldn’t run my own Snow Cone stand.

So, I was a bit dismayed when British Petroleum took over our little Gulf station and things started to change. I was not a fan of changing the way we filled up and serviced our car. It was the early 80’s and I had just started driving a 64 Ford Fairlane that I bought for $500 dollars. It needed gas and service, but Charles and the other attendants were no longer considered necessary.

I discovered how multinational companies and U.S.-style capitalism operated. I learned Gulf Oil was actually bought out by Chevron in 1982. In order to settle anti-trust regulations, Chevron sold a number of stations on the east coast, like our Walt’s Gulf station, to British Petroleum. I learned about OPEC and how gas shortages were manufactured. Having already experienced gas lines and price hikes, I knew the wishes of the fossil fuel industry were bigger and more important than mine or my little town’s. It was apparent the fossil fuel industry was even more powerful than nations like ours.

“Everybody gets gas,” as Charles would say.

About 12 years later, I was traveling for work in Baku, Azerbaijan and was approached by a BP exec about taking a job there. They had started operations in the Caspian Sea after the breakup of the Soviet Union and were looking for Americans familiar with the region.

I did not go to work for BP, but, even now, I usually pull into a BP station whenever the gauge tells me it’s time to get gas. It’s the connection to my childhood, bitter though it may be.

Last week, BP settled with Mississippi and four other Gulf states over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Governor Phil Bryant and Attorney General Jim Hood were on the Coast taking all sorts of credit for the $1.5 billion the state will receive as part of the settlement. They should have just thanked the Feds at the Justice Department.

Reports, documents and company briefings suggested BP, Transocean, which owned the rig, and Halliburton, which built the casing for the well, all ignored tests in the hours before the 20 April, 2010 explosion that indicated faulty safety equipment. They did not suspend operations. 11 workers were killed and our gulf coast is still recovering from an environmental catastrophe. In 2012, BP pleaded guilty to 11 felony manslaughter charges, as well as environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress.

If BP had not been found negligent in federal court, Mississippi would have seen less than $1.5 billion as part of any settlement. As it is Mississippi should have seen much more, but our state seems to be at a slight disadvantage when it comes to negotiating for anything.

Governor Bryant proclaimed most of the $1.5 billion would go toward environmental restoration, with a portion to economic development. The Legislature would decide how to spend $750 million over 17 years. It’s a lot of money and it could do a lot of good for Mississippi, but our state’s track record for effective spending in these cases has been less than inspiring. And with so much more money, it is probably safe to expect a few more spending shenanigans and a lot more graft.

Back to BP: In settling with five Gulf States for $18.5 billion, the petroleum giant will have spent over $30 billion on the spill in total and almost $20 billion more on other projects in the region. BP’s head of communications, Geoff Morrell, said such spending demonstrates “an extraordinary manifestation of commitment to the Gulf and to the US…”

Morrell is right. It does demonstrate a commitment to take ownership of a mess BP created. Albeit, they’ve done so after kicking and screaming for the past five years.

As it faced penalties for its own disaster, BP lobbied lawmakers on the penalties all fossil fuel companies faced for spills. BP has spent millions on efforts to influence legislation, including protecting their tax loopholes. Think of the million of dollars other fossil fuel companies spend to lobby our federal and state representatives.

In addition, the industry spends untold dollars funding gilded, even spurious, scientific reports downplaying and denying their role in global warming and other sins against our natural world. In truth the long-term environmental and economic impact of the BP oil spill cannot be readily assessed. BP keeps repeating the phrase, “The Gulf is a resilient body of water.”

Nevertheless much of our coastal industries are reeling. Oyster production has not recovered. Dolphins and other marine life are dying. Tar balls continue to appear. $1.5 billion could do a lot of good, but it cannot return the Gulf environment to its pre-spill state. That has been destroyed forever. No matter how carefully we try manufacturing carbon-based fuel in the future, it will always pollute our world.

No doubt, fossil fuel industry executives are aware they are destroying our atmosphere, our forests, or water systems. They know they are wreaking havoc in developing nations. In Oklahoma, practices like fracking are causing earthquakes. These execs might have difficulty sleeping if they weren’t sleeping in palatial estates on sheets with an exaggerated thread count.

As we continue to coddle the industry with less oversight and more tax breaks, we give them no incentive to discover and develop alternate ways to fuel up our cars and power up our world. We need to weigh the consequences of the exploitation of our planet and its resources. Yes, it’s convenient, but the further use and development of carbon fuels will not be worth it in the long run. Ask Kemper County Coal Plant customers. It is time to explore better, more sustainable and renewable energy for a better life for everyone on our planet.

“Everybody gets gas.” Maybe that’s what needs to change.

» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.

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