The five most profitable companies in the world last year made their money in oil and gas. And yet for all the investment corporations like BP have made into finding and extracting fossil fuels, they appear to have made precious little progress in figuring out how clean up beaches and wetlands and water when something goes wrong.
BP made $21.1 billion in profits last year alone, and yet its response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster looks pitiful and is pitiful, with booms that don't work and aren't placed right, and bamboo pickets that don't hold it in place, and workers who keep shoveling at the same spot in the sand because the oil just keeps coming.
Could it really be this bad? Could BP and its kin really not know how to clean up oil spills, 20 years after the Exxon Valdez? Yes, says one of the co-chairs of President Obama's new BP Oil Spill Commission, former EPA administrator and oil executive William Reilly:
The extraordinary success of this industry in developing technology to go deeper and deeper into the sea to put down a well, essential well, and then go out in all directions to get the product up is breathtaking.
And the condition, as nearly as I can tell from looking at the photographs and the movies from what's happening in the Gulf, is that the response technology is about as primitive as it was in the Exxon Valdez case. That is the skimmers that are dysfunctional in the open ocean, the booms that break, as you say, with the slightest wave action, dispersants that are not ready for prime time, that may or may not be toxic, something that has to be determined in the event, which seems to me ought to have been anticipated, with impacts on fish that really need to be very carefully acknowledged and may or may not have been.
I would say that it's really scandalous that the response capability, even on the surface, not just the subsurface where we have admittedly a case of virtually nothing to work effectively is really going to be a prime focus of our review and has got to be a major priority of the commission.
Reilly noted his record of levying fines at the EPA, and called for a "serious regulatory apparatus" to force the industry to never let this kind of disaster happen again. He said he will take a leave of absence from the board of Conoco Phillips, where he serves as a director of the oil company while the commission conducts its investigation. Reilly said he raised the issue of his involvement in the oil industry and says he understand that the "president considered it an advantage that I do know the industry and have experience with it."