Maxwell Anderson's IMA

 

A

week ago I was in Florida, where the ever-widening oil slick in the Gulf of

Mexico was local news. People there were bracing for a calamity, the likes of

which they never dared imagine. On the Gulf side, they feared losing their

fishing and tourism industries. And there was concern that if the oil drifted

to the south, it might be picked up by currents below Florida's southern tip

and start washing up on beaches along the state's eastern coast as well.

No

one in the oil industry will say they saw this coming. There have been ruinous

oil spills, but they generally occurred as oil was being transported from one

place to another. A deep sea rupture at the source, where oil was being

extracted, was – we were told -- practically unheard of.

Offshore

oil drilling was considered to be so failsafe that even President Obama felt

secure in calling for more of it, reversing his stated position on the issue in

order to try and woo Congressional support for climate legislation.

Messing

with oil seemed like a relatively innocuous thing to do. Until, that is, oil

started messing with us.

It

figured that the oil company at the root of the Gulf gusher would be

British-based oil giant BP. As Jason Leopold's excellent reporting for the

online digest Truthout has shown, BP has been on the wrong end of a litany of safety

violations going back almost a decade.

There

was a fine levied against a BP drilling rig in 2003 for "failure to follow the

procedures established in the Job Safety Analysis (JSA)." In 2004, another BP

rig was cited because a "diverted system was not installed as in the approved

plan...leading to damage to property and the environment." A 2005 explosion at

BP's Texas refinery killed 15 people and injured 170. BP was fined $50 million

for that incident and pleaded guilty to a felony. Two oil spills in Alaska's

Prudhoe Bay in 2006 resulted in a $20 million fine and a guilty plea to

criminal violation of the Clean Water Act.

Leopold

writes: "The issues related to the repeated spills in Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere

were revealed by more than 100 whistleblowers who, since as far back as 1999,

said the company failed to take seriously their warnings about shoddy safety

practices and instead retaliated against whistleblowers who registered

complaints with superiors."

It

was in the midst of all this that Gov. Mitch Daniels stood with BP America's

Chairman and President Bob Malone in 2006 to announce the proposed expansion of

BP's Whiting refinery on Lake Michigan. "We appreciate BP's choice of Indiana

for this massive, landmark project," said Daniels. "The eyes of the whole state

are on Northwest Indiana today, as they should be. This marks another huge step

in Indiana's economic comeback."

The

expansion was being undertaken in advance of BP's plan to begin refining heavy

crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands oil is particularly

dirty and the refining process emits a large volume of greenhouse gases.

In

2007, BP asked Daniels and Thomas Easterly, head of the Indiana's Department of

Environmental Management, for permission to increase the amount of toxic waste

it flushed into the lake. Not long after that, IDEM granted BP an exemption

from federal regulations regarding air pollution because BP claimed halving the

amount of particulates the refinery emits would not be economically feasible.

Indiana's

permissive response to the Whiting refinery expansion raised howls of protest

from environmentalists in Northwest Indiana and from elected officials in

states on the Lake Michigan coast. These protests forced BP to temporarily back

off its Lake Michigan dumping plans, but the soot it is putting in the air

remains an issue. In mid April, less than a week before the Gulf crisis began,

a group of concerned BP shareholders proposed that BP review environmental

risks related to tar sand oil, but that proposal was voted down.

"The

resolution failed so it'll have no impact on the project," said a BP

spokesperson. "We factored the price of carbon into our projects and Whiting is

no exception. The project continues to move forward. We'll have 3,000 on the

job this year working on the project." The refinery expansion is due for

completion in 2011.

As

far as BP is concerned, the potential profits from tar sand oil outweigh the

costs of pollution. As far as the Daniels administration is concerned, those

3,000 jobs do, too. Daniels and Easterly have adamantly rejected environmental

concerns about the Whiting expansion, insisting there's nothing to worry about

and that BP is a solid corporate partner. They insist the project's advantages

outweigh any risks.

If all

this sounds terribly familiar, it should. Once again BP is at the center of a

risky practice involving extracting, transporting and refining oil. Once again,

we hear confident voices assuring us that profit is what matters most. The

difference is that this BP story is taking place here, in our own backyard. To

paraphrase the governor, if the eyes of the entire state aren't on what BP is

doing in Northwest Indiana, they should be.

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