Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The World from Berlin

Washington and BP -- 'Like a Junkie Controlling His Dealer'

It took a little over a month, but over the weekend oil leaking from the BP wellhead on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico began clogging the sensitive ecosystems in the Mississippi River delta. US politicians are venting, but German commentators doubt whether Washington will rein in the oil industry.

Politicians in Washington are getting nervous. With attempt after attempt to seal the leaking BP oil well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico having failed, a number of government officials ramped up the rhetoric over the weekend in an effort to up the pressure on the oil giant.

"I am angry and I am frustrated," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Sunday. "We are 33 days into this effort, and deadline after deadline has been missed." He also suggested that the federal government might take over from BP should the oil company not do enough to stop the leak.

In addition, Congress is considering a bill that would quadruple a tax on oil that goes toward cleaning up spills -- to 32 cents a barrel.

Frustration is growing overseas as well. Cem Özdemir, head of the German Green Party, called for a boycott of BP in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday. "It is in the hands of consumers to express their displeasure with BP through their buying patterns," he told the Hamburger Abendblatt. He accused BP of disinformation and of trying to play down the damage caused by the ongoing oil leak.

Plunging Market Value

Furthermore, Özdemir called for the creation of an international crisis team, attached to the United Nations, to respond to future environmental catastrophes. "As is almost always the case when it comes to such catastrophes, it took way too long until determined action was taken. It is unacceptable that, every time a tanker sinks, an oil platform burns or something similar happens, a wait-and-see approach is adopted," Özdemir said.

Over the weekend, more heavy oil washed into the marshlands of the Mississippi River delta, threatening the fragile ecosystem as well as the jobs of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who depend on the region's fishery. On Monday, the US declared a "fishery disaster" in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as a result of the pollution.

BP this week was undertaking yet another attempt to plug the leak which has pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day since the Deepwater Horizon sank in late April. The plan is to pump heavy fluids and cement into the wellhead to stop the flow, but BP said the effort had only a 60 to 70 percent chance of success due to the immense depth of the leak. Since the spill, BP has lost some €50 billion in market value, with its shares plunging a further 3.8 percent on Tuesday.

German commentaries take a look at the spill on Tuesday.

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Since the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, the US government, as far as one can tell, hasn't made many mistakes. It placed a moratorium on further drilling, it demanded that improvements be made in safety systems and it announced that BP would be made to pay for the damages resulting from the spill. Still, the environmental catastrophe which will destroy ecosystems and the regional economy for years, if not decades, is not even close to being under control."

"Obama has the opportunity to show his leadership qualities in this crisis. If a fundamental change in mentality is even possible, now is the time. But it would be naïve to think that the US political class would have much of an interest in doing so. Reports of over a dozen exceptions having been made to the drilling moratorium also leads one to be suspicious of Obama's motives. Aggressive BP bashing, on the other hand, doesn't cost anything. It is cheap. Too cheap."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Washington's oversight of the oil industry has failed. That is not surprising -- it's like a junkie trying to control his dealer."

"It has been said that the US Environmental Protection Agency is considering withdrawing all government contracts, drilling licenses and leases from BP. The oil giant has 22,000 oil and gas wells in the US worth $16 billion (€13 billion) -- almost 40 percent of BP's entire turnover. Such a move would be crushing. And it would be almost impossible to push through. BP is also one of the most important fuel suppliers of the US military. BP's defenders would merely have to point out that any move against the company would endanger US national security. The past bears this out: BP has been forced to pay tens of millions in penalties to the US government and has been able to successfully defend itself against charges of criminal negligence despite four major -- and fatal -- accidents."

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"BP cannot be allowed to evade responsibility by pointing to an absence of regulations, the case is too serious for that ... Normally, nobody is required to do more than that required by law. Companies don't have to pay more taxes than required and they don't have to pay higher wages than agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement. But a company has a responsibility for protecting its workers from danger, even if there is a loophole in the relevant labor laws. That is particularly true with it comes to high-risk occupations. The company is obliged to explore all possible ways to minimize the dangers posed by dangerous technologies. That holds for oil companies the same as it does for airlines and nuclear power plant operators."

"Energy companies, which make billions in profits each year ... , certainly have sufficient money to ensure as much safety as humanly possible. Not doing so is criminal. Seen this way, we are dealing with a serious case of management failure.... Every person and legal entity has a responsibility for protecting the livelihood of all. One doesn't need to go searching in the law books for such a requirement. A constitution and a bit of intellect are all that is necessary."

-- Charles Hawley

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