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Extinction, Greed & The Need for Regulation

Posted by RickH · May 30th, 2010 · 1 Comment

As I read the news concerning the greatest oil disaster in the history of the United States (of the world?), I cannot help but wonder if British Petroleum has guaranteed the next major extinction.

No doubt some of you will write me off for that comment and move on, thinking what I have to say cannot possibly be relevant to your life, or to anyone’s real life, for that matter.  Obviously, I’m some kind of a nutcase.  After all, extinction is impossible; humanity is unstoppable.

But that — combined with the fact that extinctions are not at all rare — is exactly why this event may be the trigger for the next mass extinction.

Ninety-nine percent of the species that have ever existed on this planet are currently extinct.  More join the list every day. And even before the current BP disaster, the ocean was in trouble.

The most ecologically essential habitats — estuaries, wetlands, shallow water seagrasses, and coral reefs — are most threatened. Thirty percent of the world’s mangrove forests and nearly half the world’s coral reefs have been lost due to direct habitat destruction. Many of the remaining critical marine habitats are indirectly degraded by pollution, freshwater diversion, and climate change. As human population pressures grow, essential ecological services and species are affected, leading to conditions in which the planet’s vital organs can serve neither nature nor us. (Tundy Agardy, “Are we in the midst of a mass extinction?” (undated) from roundtable: A Modern Mass Extinction?, PBS.org, boldfacing in the original PBS page.)

A Google search on the phrase “extinction ocean” turns up 3,150,000 hits, with titles like “Salt-Water Fish Extinction Seen By 2048” for a 2006 CBS news story, a 2009 story from the Discovery Channel titled “Ocean Dead Zones Could Approach Mass Extinction Levels,” and the news that in the five of the prior known mass extinctions which the Earth has endured, “the tropical marine biota has been the most impacted in all cases.”

In short, even before the BP catastrophe — and, mind you, “disaster” is far too mild a word — the oceans were reeling.  For years, scientists have been warning us, unsuccessfully, about the damage we’re doing.  But the stupidity of human beings knows no bounds when it comes to immediate gratification.  This is borne out most obviously when politicians vie for votes, as California’s Devin Nunes does by hammering away at the concept that the delta smelt is “a three-inch minnow,” which environmentally-minded Democrats are choosing “over working families.”

I’ve news for Mr. Nunes, plankton are even shorter than three inches.

More importantly, the argument of scientists and environmentalists is that the mass extinctions going on right now cannot help but impact working families. Some of the impact is immediate, as for the economies — and families — along the Gulf Coast which depend upon the existence of fish, clams, oysters, shrimp and other marine life which has become unavailable due to BP’s spill.  The longer range impact is not known to many of us, if to any of us.

The scary thing is that all of this is driven by greed.  It is not driven by need.

Although they denied it in testimony before a panel in Louisiana, BP knew, for example, that some kind of disaster was in the making.

Bob Sherrill, an expert on blowout preventers and the owner of Blackwater Subsea, an engineering consulting firm, said the conditions on the rig in February and March and the language used by the operator referring to a loss of well control “sounds like they were facing a blowout scenario.”

Problems with the well — including both the casing and the blow-out preventer — went back at least as far as a year ago, when BP’s own engineers expressed concern that the cheaper materials being used risked disaster.

On June 22, [2009] for example, BP engineers expressed concerns that the metal casing the company wanted to use might collapse under high pressure.

“This would certainly be a worst-case scenario,” Mark E. Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP, warned in an internal report. “However, I have seen it happen so know it can occur.”

But BP officials responded, “Drill, baby, drill!

The fact is that BP repeatedly cut corners and ignored warning signs, including instrument read-outs before the explosion showing gas bubbling into the well, indicative of a pending blow-out.  Cutting corners is all about money; it’s not a matter of necessity.

Ironically, a Wall Street Journal story comments that demand for fuel is down, creating a problem for oil company profits.  Shell Oil saw a 19% decrease in profits to $2.9 billion.  I wish I had a fraction of that kind of a problem.

The overall story of oil profits is difficult to discover, but this much is known: oil companies increasingly do phenomenally well, while destroying our planet.  Net profits — that is, the profits after all costs, including fines for cutting corners, clean-up costs, etc. — run into billions and billions of dollars per year for each oil company.  In fact, even BP reported an obscene increase in profits over last year for the same quarter:

BP…said its profit rose to $6.08 billion from $2.56 billion during the same period of 2009. Excluding the impact of energy prices on unsold inventories as well as $49 million of one-time items, and BP would have earned $5.65 billion, topping consensus estimates by about $900 million.

Revenue rose to $74.42 billion from $48.09 billion.

So I don’t really know what to make of the Wall Street Journal story of “decreased profits.”  The WSJ reports, however, that the response of the oil companies to such “decreased profits” is two-fold: they’re trying to permanently shut down refineries, so as to decrease the available supply and force prices up, and they’re cutting corners.

Regardless of BP’s bottom line, the bottom line for the rest of us is this: without strict regulation, the greed that drives oil companies may very well have already started the ball rolling on Earth’s sixth major extinction.

Anyone who really knows me knows that I tend more toward libertarianism than either progressivism (or liberalism) or conservativism.  But the primary purpose of governments is the protection of all of us. This is the one thing I really cannot do for myself.  I can arm myself against robbers, burglars, even individual potential murderers.  I cannot stop large multi-national corporations with billions of dollars that make them more powerful even than most governments.

Companies like BP have shown that they are incapable of regulating their own greed, so government must do it for them.  Ever consistent in their philosophies, right-wing conservatives will scream bloody murder about the regulation of oily murderers, but that is exactly the problem.  Unrestrained, these corporations are murderers, on a scale unmatched in history (human or otherwise).

The same people who insist on locking away folks for life because they steal CDs, tattoo children, or murder individuals should wake up and realize that the time for regulation of those who would willingly risk the extinction of all life on Earth is a necessary governmental function.

After all, extinctions do happen. Even non-greedy humans drive them. Thus, we may be doomed anyway.  If we don’t allow our governments to regulate against these tendencies, we are truly doomed.  Shouldn’t we at least regulate the most obvious — and most dangerous — offenders?

After all, the planet we save could be our own.

Categories: Corporations · Environment

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