To BP Or Not To BP?

The Big Money
June 7, 2010

I needed to fill up the gas tank of a rental van a few days ago. The first station that came into view was a BP on 110th Street in Manhattan. I had to make a quick decision—should I buy gas from a company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history?

I laughed at the idea—of course I shouldn’t. BP is now public enemy No. 1. But at the last second, I pulled into the station.

For nearly a decade I have chronicled oil’s impact on the countries that produce it. I journeyed through Ecuador, where Chevron (CVX) faces a multibillion-dollar lawsuit for a legacy of contamination that environmentalists there regard as the Chernobyl of oil. I stood outside the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad in 2003 and heard Iraqis bemoan the wars that oil had brought to their homeland. In Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, I have seen the beyond-the-pump costs of oil extraction.

Yet I pulled into the BP station because of these travels. The unfortunate truth is that the reckless and destructive practices of BP are not an exception. Across the globe, firms of all stripes and structures—whether owned by governments or shareholders or billionaires—have despoiled environments and contributed to cultures of corruption and violence.

Penalizing BP and making sure spills do not occur off Louisiana again will do little to stop the tragedies occurring beyond our borders. If we vent our 15 minutes of indignation only at BP and if we protect only our coastlines, we will have failed to address the immense problem of which BP and the spill are merely symptoms. Remember that BP is only the 19th-largest oil and gas firm in the world, and the United States has less than 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The scenes of devastation in the Gulf of Mexico might be new to our eyes but not, for instance, to Nigerians, whose oil has been pumped into American gas tanks for decades. I traveled into the Niger Delta on a canoe and saw oil dripping from wellheads and natural gas burning in flares along the shores. A Shell processing facility drooled fluids into the water. Even when my canoe was not within sight of any oil facilities, I could smell crude; a sheen of it was on the water. From 1976 to 2001, there were, on average, more than five spills a week in Nigeria, according to government statistics—and unofficial estimates are far higher. The tragedy in Nigeria is quite literally drip-drip; there’s not a gusher as dramatic as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, but over the years far more oil is believed to have been spilled there.

Please don’t get me wrong. BP merits every criminal and civil sanction the Justice Department can inflict upon it. And of course government regulators and industry lobbyists are too close in America—I hope the Obama administration fulfills its pledge to change that. But petro-incest is far worse where corrupt or poor governments are the regulators and extractors of oil—look at Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq, among others. It’s good to tidy up our regulatory backyard, but what about backyards further afield, where most of the world’s oil comes from and where most of the damage is occurring?

The truth is that we care mightily when BP wreaks havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, but we pay scant attention when Shell harms Nigeria, when Chevron pollutes Ecuador, when PDVSA stains Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, when Suncor extracts oil from tar sands in Canada. It’s understandable that as we watch the live webfeed of the gusher, we want to know what BP officials knew and when they knew it, and we want to know why the Obama administration didn’t react sooner. But if we don’t broaden the horizons of our questions, we run the risk of reinforcing a fairy tale that says we can have our oil and our environment, too. The worst outcome of the mess in the Gulf would be the perpetuation of the conceit that error and greed can be regulated out of the worldwide oil industry.

In other words, we need to change the oil-centric paradigm of our times. It is broken. We must deal with BP, but we must also channel the power of our anger toward reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Smaller cars, less driving, more carpools, public transportation, better home insulation, smaller homes, less meat, more renewable energy—these are the sorts of useful things we can do. It little matters whether we fill our tanks at BP or Exxon stations. What matters is that we visit gas stations less often.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.