Five years ago, the United States watched one of the worst environmental disasters in history unfold in the Gulf of Mexico as close to five million barrels of oil spilled into the sea. First came the explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 workers, and then the subsequent leakage from an underwater pipe. For 87 days, oil flowed untethered as the nation watched in horror.
In the years since, the accident and its aftermath have exited center stage, losing the attention of most people living outside of the Gulf region. But it hasn’t lost the attention of Antonia Juhasz.
Juhasz, an oil-industry watchdog, author and award-winning journalist based in San Francisco, has investigated the impact of the spill and has been following BP’s trial. In her 2011 book, “Black Tide,” she chronicled the experiences of people living in the Gulf region and the families of crewmen who died in the explosion, the public policies that set the event in motion and the oil industry’s response.
As the trial over BP’s role in the oil spill approaches its conclusion, Juhasz’s continued coverage of events has appeared in national publications including Rolling Stone and The Nation, and her next article will appear in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine.
When Juhasz was 26 and working as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, she was shocked to discover the amount of influence corporations had on members of Congress. Her attention quickly turned to the “most powerful and wealthy influence at that time,” she says: “the oil sector.” During the 18 years since, Juhasz has maintained that focus and is one of the foremost experts on the industry today.
Her reporting has taken her to Afghanistan and Ecuador, and she’s a regular media commentator, appearing on current-affairs programs in the U.S., including NBC’s “Today” show.
In 2010, she received the Project Censored Award for her alternative annual report on Chevron. She’s also authored “The Bush Agenda” (2006), “The Tyranny of Oil” (2008) and contributed to six other books about the oil industry and globalization.
What impact has immersing yourself in the lives of the BP oil spill’s victims, and then watching the trial — where it looks like BP might escape virtually unscathed — had on you?
First, I wouldn’t say that I agree that they’re unscathed. While the public has looked away, it’s still a very full-blown disaster, including the legal portion, which is still unfolding. BP is still on trial for potentially as much as a $14 billion fine, and under the Clean Water Act, it is still finishing a process called the Natural Resource Damages Assessment. It’s very important for public attention to be focused on these processes — even though it’s five years later — to make sure they are held to account.
The thing that’s been very frustrating, covering this for five years and in getting to know people impacted very personally, including the families of the men who died on the rig, is how quickly public attention just disappeared. When it comes to public policy to regulate the oil industry, there’s been no change whatsoever, from a policy perspective, to regulate offshore oil drilling. The reason why that happened was that the public stopped paying attention. There was pressure that had been building for several months on policy makers, and it looked like there was going to be policy change, but they just waited out the public’s attention, and when the public turned away, the policy evaporated.
Today, instead of better protections for offshore drilling, we have President Obama proposing to open up the Atlantic Coast for offshore drilling, and that’s definitely been the saddest part. There are moments when we can come together and support communities that are in trouble, but then we have to stay focused in order for that compassion to turn into action, and that ended pretty quickly outside of the Gulf of Mexico.
BP has said there is no way it can pay anywhere near $14 billion, and it looks like it might get a much smaller fine as a result.
What they did, which was really sneaky, is they split off their U.S. offshore arm from the rest of their U.S. business, and they’re saying, basically, that their offshore business doesn’t have enough money — and it’s just ludicrous.
I mean, this is something oil companies do very, very often to avoid lawsuits, which is to just split off the offending arm of the company from the parent. The parent is what we should be looking at, and the parent company, which is BP based in London, made over $200 billion in revenue last year.
They’ve also known for five years that they are facing these huge fines. None of the fines being proposed are at all outside of what people knew from the very beginning were likely to be part of the outcome — so BP has had five years to prepare financially, and it is BP’s responsibility to be prepared for the fines and to be able to cover them. So it’s totally ludicrous that it’s finding it can’t come up with the cash.
Did BP split off the offshore arm prior to the spill?
No, it only did it recently.
Has BP made any changes in its practices that would help to prevent similar spills in the future?
Not anything particularly noteworthy, no, nor has the industry or the regulators. Some changes have occurred on the margins. There are more federal investigators to monitor offshore drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. And the agency that makes money off of offshore drilling, and that which regulates it in the U.S., are now two separate agencies. But, every expert I’ve interviewed is deeply concerned that it is not only “business as usual” in offshore drilling, but that things are getting more dangerous as the companies drill even deeper and farther from shore.
Five years later, how does the environment in the area around the spill and the community that depends on economic benefits tied to that area of the Gulf of Mexico compare to how it was prior to the accident?
Some areas have been totally devastated, while others are recovered. It’s a mixed picture, as it is a huge body of water and huge part of the country, and some parts were hit harder and longer than others. For example, the African-American fishing community of Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana, where I have spent a lot of time doing interviews, has been totally decimated. They are oystermen, primarily, and, after generations of making their living from oystering, those who could leave town did, and for those forced to stay, the outlook is grim. The hardest-hit beaches in Louisiana are still totally closed to shrimping, oystering, etc. But other areas are back to normal or even doing better than before the spill. Many animal species have suffered greatly, such as dolphins, which continue to die in dramatically larger numbers than before the spill. Oil still washes up on some beaches and still clogs marshes, adding to coastal erosion. But some beaches are pristine. It’s going to be a long time before we know the full impacts.
Environmental impact aside, do you have any examples from your research of how these oil companies are exploiting human rights?
Working in the oil sector is now the most deadly job in America by an enormous margin, particularly because of the dangerous Bakken region and oil refineries. Communities that live next to refineries deal regularly with companies that just flagrantly break the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act for years and years and years — but the fines are so small, it doesn’t matter, and the regulations are so infrequently implemented that it doesn’t matter.
I’ve written extensively in my books, and in the three alternative annual reports on Chevron that I edited, about the growth of oil companies abroad, and in these locations around the world, including Ecuador most recently — an Ecuadorian court held that Chevron owes that country billions of dollars for environmental human health abuse. There’s a well-documented track record of human rights abuses in the operation, production, transporting and refining of oil.
Should the people living near the coast be concerned about the crude oil being transported through their city?
Most definitely. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation accidents in the United States, has said very clearly that regulations have simply not kept up with the dramatic increase in the amount of crude being transported by rail in the United States, and that where possible, those trains should be diverted out of sensitive areas and population centers.
Attempted regulations have been quite weak but have started to trickle in. The most significant change has only been voluntary measures by the industry to use what they are calling “safer cars” or “reinforced rail cars.” The problem is that there has now been a slew of new crude-oil train incidents that have involved those new “safer cars,” and those cars have punctured and exploded just like the weaker cars have. It seems like one of the main problems is that the primary type of crude oil being moved by rail in the United States is the Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is highly volatile and is more like a gasoline in that sense than traditional crudes, and that when the trains carrying Bakken oil derail — and as it turns out, trains derail a lot — they not only spill the oil they are carrying; they also have a tendency to explode, which is why they’ve been dubbed “bomb trains.”
In September 2014, you wrote an op-ed that urged the federal government to cancel its contracts with Exxon. Why single out Exxon as the company to stop supporting?
I had written a cover article for The Advocate magazine called “What’s wrong with Exxon,” and this was a follow-up. The cover article was written because ExxonMobil has the lowest score in the history of Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. Exxon routinely gets negative 25 out of 100 possible points because not only do they not have protections and health benefits for their lgbt employees and their families, but when they acquire a new company, they eliminate the protections that those companies have. The Advocate was wondering why that is, so I did this feature article exploring what was going on with Exxon. After the president passed his executive order requiring that all government contractors have equal protections and benefits for their LGBT employees and their families, the question was: OK, Exxon is a huge government contractor, so shouldn’t Exxon then lose its contract? I found out that is correct, but there is time to implement the order, and so there’s a transition phase that we’re in.
Do you ever throw up your hands and say to yourself, “Why am I doing this? Big oil is just too big and too powerful and too rich to fight?”
I certainly have my days (laughs), when I feel soaked in the muck of the industry that I’m investigating. The thing that really keeps me going — and what I always try to write about in my books and articles — are the people who are standing up to this industry every day in far more difficult situations than I. People on the frontlines, whether they be in Ecuador, Afghanistan or North Dakota, these are the people who I believe will give readers hope and who also give me hope. There’s a choice to go down the difficult path of tackling this industry, and that’s the path that I’ve chosen, and so have lots of other people — people who are on a significantly more difficult part of that path than I.
I did a piece for CNN — I was in Ecuador — and the woman I highlighted in the piece was Alicia Cahuilla. Here’s a woman who, her tribe had been decimated by oil production, but she stands up to this industry and literally risks her life on a day-to-day basis to do so. If she can do that, I can certainly write about the industry.
People like her are, in many cases, more the rule than the exception. Really people all over the country and the world are standing up and not being afraid to tackle this behemoth.
It’s in the oil industry’s best interest to sell all the oil it has in its reserves. But scientists warn 80 percent of known fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if we’re going to avoid exceeding that well-known 2-degree Celsius limit on increasing global temperature. What kind of policy changes do you think could help divert oil companies toward other kinds of energy, or at least stop them from drilling everywhere and maintain their reserves?
I’ve seen what oil companies do with the natural resources that they do have access to, and I would really hate to see them also be given control of other natural resources like the sun and the wind and the water. So what I think what we have to do is, as long as we’re dependent on fossil fuels, which is going to unfortunately continue, we need to constrain as much as possible.
While we’re dependent on oil, we have to regulate when, where and how the industry is able to get the resource that they go after as we move toward meeting that requirement that 80 percent of fossil fuels stay in the ground, and the way to do that isn’t to depend on the interests of the oil industry. It’s rather to regulate and restrict the interests and activities of the oil industry.
If we are to avert the worst of climate crisis, we have to work contrary to the interest of the oil industry. That gives us a couple options.
One is to stop consumption, and the other is — how much of a free hand do we want to keep allowing the industry to have? The reason why we are producing more oil in the United States now than we ever have in our entire history is because of policies put in place by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, which have almost given a complete green light to the industry to produce wherever it wants, whatever it wants, however it wants. And if we want to change course, we have to change those policies.
Is there anything going on in Congress right now that makes you think we might be close to changing some of those policies?
There are definitely people in Congress who get it. They don’t get enough support from the public, honestly. People don’t understand that it’s actually very hard for policy makers to do the right thing if they don’t hear from the public. The public needs to say what they want to see happen and support the members of Congress that do the right thing. They need to come out and vote and tell their friends to come out and vote and do those things that need to happen to counterbalance the unbelievably extreme weight of money on the other side.
Can we expect another book in the near future?
Yeah, I’m getting ready to work on another book. I’m tentatively calling it “The End of Oil.” We need to move toward the end of oil as quickly as possible, and there’s a push to do that in the public. There’s actually a movement called “Leave the Oil in the Soil” that started in Ecuador, but there’s this counter push in that the industry is trying to grasp on to every last drop of oil that there is before we reach the end of oil. I’m looking at this question of what those two highly conflicting pressures are creating.
Courtesy of INSP News Service street-papers.org / Street Roots