I might be sitting more than 3,000 miles from Washington DC, but even from here I can detect the rank stench of hypocrisy. President Obama, not content with bashing banks, has now started on Big Oil. He wants to make BP pay every cent of claims arising from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and has intimated that he will back a bill that raises – retrospectively – the liability limit for claims from $75m to $10bn.
Now, it’s entirely possible that BP may have been negligent, or cut corners. Memories of the blast at its Texas City refinery in 2005, where its safety standards did fall short, are still fresh. But it’s also plausible that one of its subcontractors – rig operator Transocean, or well casing contractor Halliburton – was to blame. Or that the blast was simply bad luck on a spectacular scale. But Congress has, it seems, already tried and convicted the British company and is now working out the punishment.
In the rush to apportion blame and prise open BP’s chequebook, US lawmakers seem to have forgotten that their country is addicted to oil like no other on earth. Do they think that exploiting oil in challenging locations like Alaska or the deepwater Gulf of Mexico is risk-free, or that they can make it risk-free? If they want the Gulf to be a nature reserve, fine – they need to import a lot more oil from somewhere else, pay more for it, or use less of it. That would imply a huge lifestyle change. California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, this week said he would no longer back plans to drill for oil off the coast. Fine. Let’s see him explain $5 gasoline to the state’s 32 million drivers. Or are they all going to convert to wind power?
Finally, when it comes to messing up the environment, American companies have got plenty of previous. The chemicals that poisoned thousands (of people, not seagulls or shrimps) in Bhopal back in 1984 are still leaching into the ground water 26 years later. Union Carbide, the owner of the plant and now part of Dow Chemical, has only ever paid the sum it received from its insurers to compensate the victims. Stop throwing rocks, Obama – the White House is made of glass!