Hellfire of oil politics

This article originally appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen

President Barack Obama has been busy for the past few weeks, thinking of whose ass to kick for the unprecedented environmental damage being caused by the uncontrollable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

He is under fire for not acting decisively or being soft on the culprits — in this case the all powerful British Petroleum and other oil industry giants which are also responsible for the April 20 accident that killed 11 oil workers.

How can he? After all, multinationals are part of the capitalist-led system that rules the United States and, perhaps, the rest of the world. Obama is just a prisoner of this system where multinationals fund election campaigns and look after Congressmen in a bid to shoot down legislation affecting Big Business. As a result, legislation that seeks to promote the welfare of the working people, impose high safety standards and protect the environment fall by the wayside. It is said that the US oil industry spent some 170 million dollars last year for lobbying purposes, whatever that means.

Former US Vice President Dick Cheney and former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice were once oil company big shots before they entered politics. Even former Presidents George H. Bush and George W. Bush were highly connected to the oil industry. Recent media reports said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair got financial rewards from a South Korean oil firm, UI Energy Corporation, which has extensive oil interests in Iraq and the United States.

The hold of the multinationals on the political establishment is such that they can burn the whole world and still get away with it. The Bhopal tragedy in India was a case in point. This week, India’s Supreme Court handed over light sentences on Union Carbide officials — all Indian citizens — for causing the world’s deadliest industrial tragedy, in which some 25,000 people died, more than one hundred thousand people suffered injuries and tens of thousands lost their sight. Twenty six years after, the effects of this gas leak are still felt throughout Bhopal with most of the children being born with birth defects.

The Supreme Court ruling sparked angry protests and prompted the Indian media to charge that the authorities were suppressing evidence.

The court failed to punish Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide. The media alleged that Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, weeks before the catastrophe, gave a clean bill to the company when questions were being raised about safety measures at its Bhopal plant. They also alleged that Singh, who is now a senior leader of the Congress Party, gave his own aircraft to Anderson to flee Ahmedabad and reach New Delhi, just four days after the tragedy, while he was still on bail. Anderson left India in a special plane that waited for him.

With politicians in its pocket, Union Carbide survived. It just threw away US$ 470 million as compensation, which amounted to a few thousand rupees for each victim. Today, Union Carbide is back in India — under a different name, Dow Chemicals. The Indian government is resisting calls by protesters that the new company be asked to pay adequate compensation to the victims.

The Bhopal episode shows that people may cry and shout but multinationals will prevail.

The record of British Petroleum, which is at the centre of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, is worse. The dirty game BP has played in world politics has filled its coffers and made the West richer at the cost of making the developing nations poorer.

Take for instance BP’s role in the early twentieth century Iran, which was divided into Russian and British zones of protection. It was a time when the British were desperately looking for oil to retain their big power status. Their ships were largely coal-powered. They were finding it difficult to cope with the challenge to their global power from the United States, Germany and Russia. But luck was on their side. In 1908, the British struck oil at Masjid Sulaiman in south-western Iran and soon everything changed. The British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company was floated to exploit the oil. The company which was later known as British Petroleum paid only a tiny amount to Iran. It was because of this plunder of oil that Britain dominated the world scene till the 1940s and its people enjoyed a high standard of living. Neither Britain nor any of its colonies had oil then.

The daylight robbery continued till 1953. Mohammed Mossadegh, a nationalist Iranian leader became prime minister in 1951. He vowed to end the British robbery of Iran’s oil. He stirred the hopes of the impoverished people who believed that the country would be a developed nation soon with oil money pouring in.

In 1953, the Iranian parliament passed a bill to nationalize the oil sector. But months later, Mossadegh was removed from office in a coup engineered by the CIA and the British intelligence MI6. The Americans were initially indifferent to Mossadegh’s nationalization move. But BP got around the British government to rope in the Americans to plan the coup. Mossadegh was arrested and the Americans restored the puppet regime of the Shah. Once again Iran’s oil became the property of the multinational oil giants.

Iran was not the only place where BP mixed its plunder with politics. As recently as 17 years ago, it played a key role in a military coup in oil-rich Azerbaijan. The British Sunday Times in a report on March 26, 2000 reported that BP backed the 1993  military coup which installed a ruthless KGB operative as Azerbaijan’s president. It said BP financed the coup in the hope that it could get oil concessions from the new government.

“Just months afterwards BP was handed the lead role in a consortium of western companies which now dominate the oil business in the region. The £5 billion deal, described as the ‘contract of the century’, was signed by Haydar Aliyev, the newly installed president. Aliyev’s arrival was welcomed by Britain and America, which have a strategic interest in securing oil rights. BP has close links to British intelligence and employs several former MI6 officers,” the report said.

Another oil company, Shell has faced lawsuit after lawsuit in several countries for polluting the environment and dumping nuclear waste by buying the silence of political leaders in developing countries.

The criminal nature of the activities of multinationals is further evident in the profits they make from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Bechtel and Halliburton together with big oil companies from countries whose hands covered America’s nakedness or its illegal invasion of Iraq are now gobbling up Iraq’s wealth and oil at concessionary prices. Their behaviour confirms what former Australian defence minister Brendon Nelson said in 2007. He admitted that securing oil supplies was the key factor behind Australia’s decision to join the war.

Similarly, the Afghan war was not so much a punitive action against al-Qaeda and its Taleban protectors for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks, but rather a move to secure the country so that the American oil giants could exploit Central Asia’s oil and transport it through a new pipeline across Afghanistan.

With tens of thousands of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico continuing to pollute the ocean, destroy marine and bird life and cause health hazards to millions of people in the southern coastal states, President Obama should not act in the same way as Indian leaders allegedly did after the Bhopal tragedy.

No one doubts BP is responsible for the environmental crime. But there are others also. Halliburton, where Cheney was once the CEO, is responsible for building the cement cases for the rig that exploded. Will the big shots at BP and Halliburton be allowed to escape just as Anderson escaped justice in India?

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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