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Pathfinders: Blow - out

 The deep-water blow-out currently gushing gigantic quantities of crude into the Gulf of Mexico threatens at the time of writing to be the biggest environmental disaster in US history, and already the blame slick is reaching into every inlet and niche of government and the oil industry.

The fact that there could conceivably be industrial disasters in socialism means that, for socialists, the big question is how we would manage affairs better. What, if anything, would a democratic, communally-managed global society do different?

 In the first place, we would have to ask whether we are really so desperate for oil that we are willing to maintain an industry now recognised as one of the most dangerous in the world. In a moneyless society, who would volunteer to risk their lives, when other sources of energy remain untapped, unexplored or undeveloped? There have been 858 fires and explosions, and 55 deaths, in the Gulf since 2001, yet new drilling licences have been granted every year by the hundreds. Many of these, like the one BP got for Deepwater Horizon, are a ‘categorical exclusion’ exempting the operator from scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency and intended only for projects where environmental damage in the event of failure is expected to be ‘minimal or non-existent’ (New Scientist, 15 May).

 Even supposing that socialism could not break the addiction to oil, a very large supposition indeed and one too great to explore here, the question arises whether as a responsible collective we would dare push the drilling technology to its limits and well beyond our knowledge and ability to recover from a catastrophic failure. What is striking about this affair is the lack of preparedness shown by all parties. The Gulf spill is at nearly twice the depth required to crush a Navy submarine, making direct human intervention impossible. The blow-out preventer failed. The huge 125 tonne containment dome failed. The robot-teams trying to shut off the valves failed. The secondary drilling shaft may work but will take another two months. The ‘plume’ problem was not anticipated. The injection of dispersant at the well-head had never been tried, and may have contributed to the plume problem. Even the amount of oil coming out has been consistently underestimated, with BP at first playing for a safe 1,000 barrels a day, then later revising this to 5,000 while independent researchers estimate between 5 and 14 times as much as this (Guardian, 17 May).

 BP have been criticised already for this downplaying and reluctance to provide information, but it’s easy to see their motives. In socialism there would be no stock market share-price to consider, or corporate image to protect, or litigation to avoid, all of it leading to a tendency to talk down the scale of the disaster and be tight-lipped with information in the interests of damage limitation. BP stock prices have fallen sharply, its ‘green’ image is in tatters, and already over a hundred lawsuits in Louisiana have been consolidated into a class action which will sue BP for hundreds of millions, a figure itself dwarfed by the cleanup costs which BP are of course trying to offload onto the Swiss company Transocean who ran the Deepwater Horizon rig.

 “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbours, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters”, says the US State Department (BBC Online, 19 May). Perhaps pro-capitalists will miss the irony here but socialists certainly won’t. In socialism these neighbours would have been consulted, and the risks made known, before any drilling went ahead, not merely informed after a disaster they had no say in preventing.

 It is also not likely that, given consultation, socialist engineers would ignore or overlook published research which anticipated all the above problems. A report in 2000 revealed that blow-out preventers (BOPs) might fail at depths of a mile or more, causing catastrophic pollution. BP and Transocean can scarcely say they didn’t know this, as they co-authored the report (New Scientist, 15 May). The problem of deepwater ‘plumes’, where oil and water emulsify into gigantic underwater columns which never reach the surface and therefore cannot be contained by any known surface collection methods, may have astonished local oceanographers in the Gulf but was already known from experiments off Norway in 2000 (New Scientist, 22 May).

 It is also vanishingly unlikely that socialist society would entrust such drilling to an operational team found responsible (BP were fined $87m plus a further $50m to settle criminal charges) for 270 safety violations which led to 15 deaths in an explosion in 2005. And in another court judgment in Texas in December 2009 BP were fined $100m and branded ‘serial polluters’.

 The cost of the cleanup plus litigation to BP is estimated at between $1 – 2bn , but this has to be set against the year’s profit BP is expected to make from its drilling operations of around $20bn, so even in a worst case scenario it’s still cheaper for BP to pay out for cleaning up and court costs than avoid the disasters in the first place. In fact, BP is cleaning up in more senses than one.

 And what of the future, now that the US government is aiming to raise the corporate liability cap from $75m to $10bn? The likelihood is that deepwater drilling will move to fields with no such regulations. One recent find off the Falklands is a case in point, and in waters three times deeper than the site of the current spill. The mind can only boggle at what will happen if a drilling operation there suffers a similar blow-out.

 Socialism, and its productive and extractive processes, will be driven primarily by consideration of human need, and the way to define and then provide that need will be one of socialist society’s most pressing debates. In capitalism there are no such concerns. It follows the money, wherever it leads, even into the depths of hell, while human society and the environment inevitably get dragged down with it.