Tomyamaguchi’s Weblog

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Not Quite Beyond Petroleum

When Republican Senate Candidate Rand Paul complained about how Barack Obama was treating BP, he called the President’s criticism of the company un-American. “I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.” While there is evidence that a crime may have been committed, and Attorney General Holder is conducting a criminal investigation, Paul does have one good point. Americans love to find someone to blame. The blame-game that Paul complains about is unfortunately very American. As soon as oil began washing on the shores of the Gulf Coast, folks on the Left and Right were seeking out someone to blame. For the Left, BP is a good target. They are a big, multinational, oil company. For the Right, Obama is a good recipient of blame. He is the head of the government that awarded the leases. The buck should stop at the Oval Office. So the Right blames the government and the politicians while the Left blames the corporations and the C.E.O.’s. If you can’t do something about the problem, finding blame at least has the appearance of doing something.

BP, originally named British Petroleum, has been trying to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum. They are not the only oil company to recognize that oil is a finite resource, and that it is in their best business interest to diversify into other fuels. Here, in Berkeley, corporation bashing is a tradition that goes back to the Free Speech Movement when Mario Savio denounced what he called a corporate-controlled university that was only interested in producing workers to function as cogs in the corporate machine. BP caused a stir when it announced the funding of a biofuels research project on that same university campus. For many Berkeley residents, BP’s money is as welcome as salmonella at the company picnic. Dr. Steven Chu, then director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, gained the suspicion of the Berkeley Left for his courting of BP and their corporate money. That suspicion of Chu continues as he now heads the Department of Energy.

BP is also an oil company that is not in denial of global warming, another reason it is looking for alternatives to fossil fuels. It is willing to support cap-and-trade legislation, which has allowed Republicans to do a little corporate bashing of their own. During the recent debate over the Murkowski Amendment that would have taken the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the EPA, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell charged,  “The problem for Democrats is that debating the Democrat cap-and-trade bill might not fit neatly into the White House messaging plan, since it’s been widely reported that a major part of the Kerry-Lieberman bill was essentially written by BP. This is clearly an inconvenient fact: an administration that seems to spend most of its time coming up with new ways to show how angry it is with BP is pushing a proposal that BP helped write.” The Politifact website found that statement to be false. BP gave input, like other companies and environmental groups, but it did not write the Kerry-Lieberman bill.

BP is not the only energy company that has come under fire recently for its political activity. PG&E suffered a big defeat in the California primary after spending $46 million to pass Proposition 16, a constitutional amendment that would have prevented local governments from getting into the electricity business without two thirds approval from voters. PG&E wrote the amendment to ward off competition. In response, State Senator Mark Leno has a bill to prevent the company from using ratepayer money for political campaigns. While, the money spent on Prop 16 was a bad decision by PG&E, the company has been on the right side of the issue of climate change by encouraging conservation and reducing its own carbon footprint. Two years, ago, PG&E gave $250,000 to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment Proposition 8. The openly gay Leno, who also opposed Prop 8, did not have a problem with PG&E’s money in that campaign. In both campaigns, PG&E said the money came from their shareholders, not ratepayers.

Corporations and governments are as imperfect as the people who run them and the people who work for them. Governments and politicians need checks and balances, as well as the oversight of a vigilant electorate. Corporations need appropriate regulation to ensure fairness in the marketplace and safety for workers and consumers. If they break the law, they should be punished by fines, imprisonment, or both.

I am angry with BP because the good work they have been doing on the issue of climate change has now been overshadowed by an act of gross negligence that has resulted in eleven deaths and environmental destruction. I am sure Obama is angry, as well, for going out on a limb for new offshore oil leases to get more support for his energy legislation. Fortunately, Obama has been able to put the oil spill in proper perspective. We continue to be dependent on oil, especially foreign oil. We need to develop alternative sources of energy that do not contribute to climate change. New sources of energy will not be able to meet all of our needs for a long time to come. We will have to continue drilling for oil until those new sources become plentiful and affordable. We can and must do that exploration under strong regulations that protect the environment and worker safety. We will move beyond petroleum, but we will need both governments and corporations to get us there.

June 17, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    Re BP working with scientists: a long time ago (pre-Reagan) I read that US science was preeminent for reasons that went beyond the WW2 exodus/death of European scientists. There were close relationships between government, business, and universities, so universities solved problems that people wanted solved. Contrast the MIT/Harvard reaction to the computer industry (we’re perfectly happy with the work we’re doing) to the Berkeley/Stanford reaction—and now Berkeley and Stanford are the two top universities for computer science.

    BP had some questions it wanted answered, and many at the universities/national labs wanted to answer the same questions. Basic research in biofuels is crucial to addressing climate change.

    Independence is crucial, but so is relevance (well, not always, highly theoretical research with no known relevance is also crucial).

    Re BP: this incident wasn’t isolated. It’s important to have a strong regulatory structure, such as exists for nuclear power, to give the public more confidence in the oil industry.

    Comment by Karen Street | June 17, 2010 | Reply

    • I have noticed that opponents of nuclear power are using the spill to boost their arguments. If we can’t trust the oil companies to drill without accidents, they say, how can we trust the nuclear industry? Of course, Karen, as you have discovered, the regulations on the nuclear power industry are much tighter, and oil spills have caused more environmental disasters than nuclear power plants.
      Just to be clear, I am not against people being angry and demanding an investigation of or accountability for the spill. It would have helped Obama if he had spoken about his efforts to clean house at Minerals Management Service before he announced his drilling plans on March 31. That would have given more credibility to his statements that he is committed to safety. If the regulators fail at their job, we need to find out why and fix it. In the case of MMS, we can’t let the industry regulate itself. We need accountability.
      Conservatives argue that government regulation itself is a failure and should be abandoned. We have occasionally gotten bad spinach, but I would not want to do away with the FDA. Nor do I accept the arguments that the problem is capitalism and that greedy corporations are more concerned with their profits than public safety. Chernobyl happened under a Communist government.

      Comment by tomyamaguchi | June 18, 2010 | Reply

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