The resource curse

2011-11-16 00:00

IN the opinion of journalist Mike Magner, the operations of British Petroleum in North America can be summed up as gross negligence in the maintenance of infrastructure, short cuts in drilling new wells, poor communication with field staff, and a generally lax attitude to human and environmental safety. Maximisation of profit is the primary aim. And Magner has plenty of evidence to sustain his criticism from horrific accidents at the Texas City refinery, pipeline ruptures in Alaska, and the infamous blowout of oil and methane from the failed well in the Gulf of Mexico’s Macondo field last year.

He adopts a typically American homespun approach to his task, delving into the private lives of BP’s victims and contrasting them with the heartless and callous methods of an international oil giant. Ironically, BP had made an effort to adopt greener practices, although hardly enough to compensate for the lost and ruined lives for which it was responsible. The author is at his best when describing technical matters to the general reader, and does a particularly good job on the catastrophic failure of the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig.

But there is also a sense that BP is a convenient foreign scapegoat. Corner cutting and disregard for workers to maximise shareholder return is standard practice for global capital. Haliburton, for example, did a shoddy job with the cement used in the Macondo well. And Magner could have made much more of the dire state of regulation by the now-restructured federal Minerals Management Service whose employees were rubberstamping oil company proposals in exchange for favours.

Magner also admits to near hysteria among the American public about the price of petrol at the pump: cheap gas for large cars is apparently the non­negotiable right of every US citizen, in spite of climate change. Right-winger Sarah Palin famously made the slogan Drill, baby, drill part of her vice­presidential bid.

So BP did, and much else besides, with dire consequences. In Africa, for good reason, oil is called the resource curse.

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