American Conservatives from Joe Barton to Rand Paul and Sarah Palin have expressed outrage that the President Obama would use the the power of his office to hold BP accountable to the residents of the Gulf Coast. They are outraged because they believe this is something the government should not do: help Americans who are out-matched by corporate wealth, power and influence get some measure of justice.

Conservatives haven’t quite reduced government to "the size where we can drown it in the bathtub". Not yet, but they keep trying because they believe government shouldn’t do what people cannot do themselves. So, if only to see what kind of world they have in mind, it’s worth looking at what happens when government doesn’t act to hold corporations accountable and protect people from the consequences of corporate negligence or malfeasance, and what happens when it can’t.

We don’t have to go very far to see what happens when the government doesn’t do what the Obama administration is trying to do to help Gulf coast residents impacted by BP’s oil disaster. We only have to go as far as Alaska and only as far back as about 20 years to see what that looks like.

Yesterday, I updated my previous post to include the story of the Alaskan fisherman who were affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

It’s significant, aside from the obvious reasons, specifically because of the conservative rhetoric against the $20 billion compensation fund Obama pressed BP to set up for individuals and business impacted by the Gulf oil disaster that BPs negligence and conservative regulatory failure helped cause. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour claimed that "If BP is the responsible party under the law, they’re to pay for everything," to suggest that the the compensation fund is unnecessary, despite the reality that BP’s primary legal responsibility is to it’s shareholders — not the residents of the Gulf coast — and  the company’s legal liability options. Michelle Bachman invoked the "rule of law", and one conservative blogger held that Gulf Coast residents should take on BP in our "incorruptible" courts.

Let’s be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing to let BP off the hook. It’s quite the opposite. I’m just opposed to letting a political appointee dole out $20,000,000,000 based on anything other than established law.

Men are corruptible. The courts aren’t. Am I certain that the Obama administration won’t play favorites with this money? Not hardly. I wouldn’t trust them, or any other administration, to dispense the money to the people who have sustained damages from this oil spill.

As I wrote yesterday, conservatives seem to be outraged at the attempt to use the power of the government to help people by doing something that people can’t do for themselves, regarding the Gulf oil disaster and BP’s responsibility.

BP is already maneuvering to have all Gulf-related lawsuits against the company heard in the courtroom of a judge with strong ties to the oil industry. Naturally the company would want the cases heard by a judge well-versed in the industry and its issues. While it’s not certain that the judge in question would base his rulings on anything other than the law, some lawyers were surprised that BP is seeking to select its own judge in both state and federal courts, where cases are usually assigned to judges randomly.

It’s unlikely that Gulf area residents would have an equal opportunity to select a judge who is well versed in how the disaster impacts their families and communities. It’s unlikely that Gulf area residents would even have the ability to decide when and where they will seek justice, let alone who will dispense it

But this is one of those things government can do, and should do, that people can’t do for themselves: Get the justice they deserve from a corporate entity that can buy all the justice it can afford, which is far more than many Gulf residents can afford.

That’s the difference between progressives and conservatives. The former believe it is one of government’s role to protect the weak or vulnerable from being harmed by parties who act as if their size, strength, and ability entitles them to do harm, or at least to get away with it — and harm is done, to ensure that the justice is done. The latter believes that’s exactly what the government should not do.

As their attorney Brian O’Neill told CNN, the 2,600 fishermen who went to court against Exxon, found out exactly how difficult it was (and still is) for every day, working people — even 2,600 combined — to take on a company of Exxon’s size and wealth.

CNN: Did anything surprise you once you started representing the fishermen and taking on Exxon after the Valdez spill?

O’Neill: I thought that — like a lot of people think now with regard to BP — that Exxon would want to settle the case relatively early and move on and I was surprised a number of times with the fact that this was World War III to them, and they dealt with it that way …

They spent over $400 million on lawyers, essentially defending [against] our claims. They took every appeal they could take and they took every delay they could take and filed every motion they could take.

Don’t kid yourself: the oil companies have the best lawyers money can buy.

CNN: You mentioned the legal system would be one of their biggest problems: can you elaborate on that?

O’Neill: Well if a company is rich enough and powerful enough to hire hundreds of lawyers they can essentially bring the legal system to a halt. They can.

Most of these fishermen no longer believe that the court system of the United States provides equal justice. They’ve come to a conclusion that is the same as the conclusion that I’ve come to, and that is that our governmental institutions will always bail out big oil, and they did here.

And he’s right. The $500 million the CNN article says Exxon spend on legal fees, funding 12 appeals over two decades, even combined with the final $500 million settlement still only amounts to a tiny fraction of the company’s profits just in the year the final ruling on the amount of the settlement came down, or the following years when the company’s profits fell by half. It comes to less than one fifth of the damages initially sought.

And the truth is, after 20 years, it doesn’t begin to compensate for what was lost, or the lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez spill even 20 years later.


The president, by pressing BP into setting up the $20 billion escrow fund, has done what he can to ensure that the people of the Gulf coast don’t go through what the Alaskan fishermen went through fighting Exxon on their own. Which outrages conservatives more? The president’s actions, or the possibility that Gulf Coast residents may not have to go through decades of dispiriting court battles, only to settle for far less than the compensation deserve? 

Perhaps both. In 1989, no such action was taken on behalf of the Alaskan fishermen impacted by the Exxon Valdez spill. More than 20 years later, we saw how that turned out.

In the Niger Delta, where oil companies can do as they please and government either  can’t or won’t step in, some of the people who must live with the result would welcome leaders who would as much as Obama has done.

For decades, the Niger Deltans have lived with the pains of oil spillage and environmental degradation with global headlines showing no interest in our plight because it is profit to the multinationals and the US/EU economies. Now the oil spill has happened in their backyard, there is so much noise. Well, our prayer in the Niger Delta is that there would not be a solution to the Gulf oil spill until the people in the area experience same pain and sorrow as we do in the Niger Delta…

Lip service attention has been paid to the cries of the people for years and this is attributed to corrupt leadership in Nigeria. None of our leaders has shown any seriousness in addressing the issues as the Obama administration has shown in the case of the Gulf oil spill. In Nigeria, we lack leadership…

The picture — from a place where oil companies are free of both government regulation and accountability — is not a pretty one. In the 40 years since oil was discovered in the Niger Delta, life as not gotten better for Nigerians, but has gotten much worse in many ways.

According to a 2003 report by an activist group on the action of Shell — which gets 10% of it’s oil from Nigeria, which is also the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S. — nearly 10,000 barrels of were spilled in the Niger Delta in that year alone. Locals living near oil operations must cope with oil spill after oil spill as rusting networks of pipes burst, and oil companies are slow to respond. According to the report, oil spills are frequently left rather than cleaned up, contaminating farmland, water, and fish supplied as well as posing a hazard when it is heated by the sun and becomes highly flammable. Oil- and gas-fueled flames are a common site in the Niger Delta, where companies chose to burn the gas rather than selling it or re-injecting it into the ground, because it’s the least costly option to the oil companies.

For all the attention that the Gulf oil disaster has gotten, the amount of oil that’s leaked into the Gulf thus far is dwarfed by the total amount of oil spilled in the Niger Delta since oil was discovered there.

The Niger Delta has suddenly become a cautionary tale for the US. As many as 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta over the past five decades, or nearly 11 million gallons a year, a team of experts for the Nigerian government and international and local environmental groups concluded in a 2006 report. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 dumped an estimated 10.8 million gallons of oil into the waters off Alaska.

The spills here are all the more devastating because this ecologically sensitive wetland region, the source of 10 per cent of US oil imports, has most of Africa’s mangroves and, like the Louisiana coast, has fed the interior for generations with its abundance of fish and crops.

There’s some debate as to how much of the spill are due to sabotage, but a BBC investigation found the rusted, corroded pipes, the neglected infrastructure, the uncleared spills and their lingering effects that have made Nigeria what some call "the World oil pollution capital."

In the Niger Delta, there is little independent monitoring of spills, and the companies themselves disclose virtually no data about their own pollution.

But, according to the Nigerian government, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000. Environmentalists believe spills — large and small — happen at a rate of 300 every year.

Site after site visited by the BBC – in both Bayelsa State and Ogoniland – had happened months before, and still not been cleaned up.

In May, an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Akwa Ibom State spilled more than a million gallons over seven days before the leak was stopped.

"The Gulf of Mexico has drawn the attention of the whole world," says Erabanabari Kobah, a local environmentalist.

"Even the president of the United States must go there to see it. The people there get compensation. But here, you must go to court. You cannot win against the oil companies in court.’

The oil industry is accused of a sharp double standard in its operations — of taking advantage of Nigeria’s lack of environment law and weak regulation, while observing higher standards of safety and maintenance overseas.

The difference between the oil disaster in the Gulf and the spills in Nigeria isn’t just a matter of how much oil was spilled, where it happened, or even to whom it happened. All of these things combine to create a reality in which decades of spills in Nigeria get far less attention than the what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico, less than 100 miles from U.S. shores and citizens. And yes, that’s a matter of who this disaster is happening to, as well as economic factors, etc.

The difference is the oil industry’s response. A month ago, Josh Marshall posted a letter from an reader with relevant knowledge and a critical perspective on the industry’s response to the Gulf disaster.

I wasn’t going to write in, but the first two responses you published made me feel that I had to. As my background [redacted] … It’s tough being an Obama supporter in the oilfield, especially in Houston.

First, BP is not tackling this mess alone. The entire drilling industry is involved, including Exxon (who has a great record when it comes to offshore drilling, not oil shipping). It’s not like only BP engineers are calling the shots, all sorts of experts are involved.

…At BP’s West Houston complex, there’s a command center filled with personnel from around the industry working with BP engineers. Several drill ships are in place. Tons of workboats are on site. There are 5 or more ROVs roaming the wellhead monitoring and cleaning things up. They’re already bumping into each other because they normally work solo while tied to a ship by a mile long umbilical cable. They don’t need more ROVs down there adding to the traffic. All these efforts are reported heavily in the Houston Chronicle and nola.com, but doesn’t seem to get much for national coverage. If you only monitor the national coverage, you’d think BP is going it alone while we all sit by, but the reality is this is an industry-wide effort because we all know what’s at stake.

They know what’s at stake because it happened to "us" this time, and not "them." The know what’s at stake because it happened "here" and not "there." And the reason there’s anything at all at stake is because over "we" have something "here" that "they" don’t have over "there," where oil companies can do as they please and get away with it.

We have a government that’s still capable of protecting citizens and holding corporations like BP accountable, and we leaders with the political will to do so. We have leaders who believe (as a New York Times editorial put it, describing Obama’s vision of government) that "cannot solve all problems, but does what people cannot do for themselves"; like clean up oil spills and hold multi-national corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal accountable to the people.

The important difference is that, as opposed to here, governments there are either unwilling or unable to do anything about it because they are overpowered by oil companies whose wealth, strength and influence surpass government’s.

The difference is, there they can get away with it, without having to compensate anyone.

If this accident had occurred in a developing country, say off the west coast of Africa or Indonesia, BP could probably have avoided all publicity and escaped starting a clean-up for many months. It would not have had to employ booms or dispersants, and it could have ignored the health effects on people and the damage done to fishing. It might have eventually been taken to court and could have been fined a few million dollars, but it would probably have appealed and delayed a court decision for a decade or more.

Big Oil is usually a poor country’s most powerful industry, and is generally allowed to act like a parallel government. In many countries it simply pays off the judges, the community leaders, the lawmakers and the ministers, and it expects environmentalists and local people to be powerless. Mostly it gets away with it.

What the industry dreads more than anything else is being made fully accountable to developing countries for the mess it has made and the oil it has spilt in the forests, creeks, seas and deserts of the world.

There are more than 2,000 major spillage sites in the Niger delta that have never been cleaned up; there are vast areas of the Colombian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon that have been devastated by spillages, the dumping of toxic materials and blowouts. Rivers and wells in Venezuela, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Sudan have been badly polluted. Occidental, BP, Chevron, Shell and most other oil companies together face hundreds of outstanding lawsuits. Ecuador alone is seeking $30bn from Texaco.

The only reason oil costs $70-$100 a barrel today, and not $200, is because the industry has managed to pass on the real costs of extracting the oil. If the developing world applied the same pressure on the companies as Obama and the US senators are now doing, and if the industry were forced to really clean up the myriad messes it causes, the price would jump and the switch to clean energy would be swift.

And if that happened, profits would almost certainly go down and take campaign donations to some of our most oil-friendly politicians with them.

That’s why conservatives want to reduce government to "the size where we can drown it in the bathtub":  to make sure that government does not and cannot hold the wealthy, powerful (whether actual persons or "corporate persons") accountable for the disastrous results of their actions and decisions, and help every day Americans (the "small people" one BP executive spoke of, or the "lesser people" mentioned by deficit commission co-chair retired Sen. Alan Simpson) who live with those disasters — from lack of health insurance to unemployment, and even oil spills.

It comes down to a fundamental difference between progressivism and conservatism.

That’s the difference between progressives and conservatives.The former believe it is one of government’s role to protect the weak or vulnerable from being harmed by parties who act as if their size, strength, and ability entitles them to do harm, or at least to get away with it — and harm is done, to ensure that the justice is done. The latter believes that’s exactly what the government should not do.

The difference is a government that serves the people vp. a government that serves power.

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