01 Jun 2010
Energy politics (part 1): BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: will it force change?
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As I watched President Barack Obama speak on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico many thoughts crossed my mind.

First, will this worst ever oil spill force the US to improve its environmental and health governance? For once, the US president, frustrated and angry at the oil that continues to spill out of the deep underwater well and devastate ecosystems and livelihoods in his country, spoke of the 'cosy relationship between big oil and federal agencies'. He is right to raise this issue. He is right to be angry. But the question is will his country learn how not to let corporate interests takeover and compromise environmental and health regulations.

We, who do not live in the US, do not realize the extent of this takeover. But we must. I would strongly urge that we all read the chilling account by Robert F Kennedy an environmental lawyer and part of the famous and powerful clan in his country, of how US democracy has been ‘worked’ by the corporate sector. His book Crimes Against Nature is a must-read for all in this field.

We know in American electoral politics, industry and other interest groups make donations to candidates. These donations are seemingly not corrupt, because they are given openly (not Indian-style cash under the table). Unfortunately, the truth lies elsewhere. Kennedy describes, in detail, the corporate takeover of the US and how this undermines issues of public health and policy.

; The process is deliberate. The corporate world knows that policy is personnel. So, the first step in dismantling public policy formulation is to ensure ‘their’ people are put in charge. This has been done in institution after institution, with devastating impacts. For instance, when a mining industry person is given charge of public land policy or a coal industry person is put in place to decide energy policy, you cannot expect unbiased outcomes (Take a look at President Obama’s key appointments and you will see not much has changed in the new administration).

Another step is to recruit scientists, who Kennedy calls ‘biostitutes’ — prostitutes to serve industrial interests. He describes in detail how this was done again and again in cases concerning public health. For instance, in deciding how much arsenic should be acceptable in drinking water, how much mercury Americans should ingest through fish, how to regulate effluents from pig-farms, industrial-style, which release a toxic mix of chemicals. In this case, Kennedy documents how a government scientist found an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria near pig farms, which was making people sick. He was gagged, his studies buried and his public appearances cancelled. This, Kennedy says, was done because of lobbying by the National Pork Producers Council.

In the fight for a voice, all tricks are used. One such case concerns a bill introduced in the US Senate in late 2001, which would require chemical plants to reduce their inventories of highly toxic and dangerous substances. The first assault came with industry associations lobbying senators against the proposed law. Money poured in — the chemical industry donated over us $38 million to Republicans and spent another us $30 million on lobbying. To ‘soften’ public servants, money was paid to benefit funds; suddenly there was a spate of articles and editorials condemning the legislation as subversive. Right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute produced briefs justifying the opposition. The bill was killed.

The most devastating fact is that this ‘corporate cronyism’ can take root because democratic institutions have been seriously compromised. Kennedy finds that even his party members — Democrats — need to play the game, because they need corporate money for elections. He also finds that the media has been systematically taken over and its role as a public informer been compromised. This has been done through pincer-like actions. Firstly, the law that regulated media as a public trust — mandating it to publicize different points of view — was abolished. Till the 1960s, under the Fairness Doctrine, advertisers of gas-guzzling automobiles, for instance, had to provide rebuttal time for public-interest advocates to debate the impact of wasteful fuel use. But in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, supported by the media, changed this. Secondly, media has been consolidated, is often owned by industry: its business is expensive so that money rules. Stories on corporate shenanigans are buried or journalists fired, finds Kennedy.

So how will, or can, President Obama clean up this system, where the rot has gone so deep? In his press conference, the president explained how the process has been shortchanged. In the US, under pressure from big oil, environmental assessment of such projects have to be completed in 30 days, otherwise, the project gets a waiver. And as little rigorous work can be done in this period, regulations are compromised, institutions of governance weakened. 

My second question is if, in this situation, where US has weak institutions and compromised regulations, should its civil society and government, be traveling abroad to preach environmental governance in our lands? I ask this because, currently, our American-star-spangled government is looking to the US Environment Protection Agency for advice on how to re-engineer environmental regulations in India. Are they the best teachers to our world?

It is important to ask this because in India as well, corporate interests are learning a trick or two from their US counterparts. They also want environmental regulations tinkered with and weakened so that they become the inspectors and the regulators. So, let’s hope US spends some quality time improving its regulatory agencies and our government spends quality time strengthening regulations and enforcement. It learns not to make the mistakes of the US. This will help them and us.

My third question is more difficult: Will this incident make the US give up (or at least temper) its addiction to oil? Will this spill make them move out of oil to new energy options – from wind to solar? Will it make them reconsider their climate-denial? This is the million-zillion dollar question. As yet, I see little signs of change.

In the meantime, we must hope that the oil spill is checked. Quickly.