Category Archives: public safety

Invasion of the Body Scanners: Airport Security May Not Work, But It Does Cause Cancer

On the eve of some of the busiest travel days of the year, airport scanners are causing hysteria–and with good reason. Never mind the puerile TSA screeners giggling at your naked body. It turns out that the things may pose serious health concerns. In a letter to John Pistole, administrator of TSA, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a scientist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, raised the possibility that the machines might be carcinogenic.

In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.V

Various experts have questioned whether older people and children ought to be subjected to scanners, and whether people susceptible to or having melanoma and cataracts should undergo the scan. 

Holt also questioned the efficacy of the body scanners, which would come as no surprise to critics who’ve been lambasting them for years. Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers. As I wrote at the time:

Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.

Just to be sure I am not going off the deep end on this subject, I emailed Steve Elson, the intrepid former Navy Seal who worked on the federal government’s Red Team, which was deployed  in the years before 9/11 to test airport security by infiltrating through check points. This they did with ease; but noone ever paid any attention to their reports. Since 9/11 Elson has worked on and off with television crews, continuing to penetrate airport security carrying with him all manner of guns and IEDs, and for the most part avoiding detection. In a CBC program last year at this time, the Canadians reviewed the air security situation and found it to be wanting. The reporters also got hold of a redacted report from the Canadian transport people which raised questions about the effectiveness of full body scanners, especially when they are used in combination with metal detectors: A person passing through one machine after another would have to place their arms in different positions and the Canadians found the body scanners would fail to detect objects like rings or bracelets on extended arms because the mechanism could not reach high enough to take them in.

This morning’s Washington Post carried a list of people exempt from body scanning, including cops and military in uniform. I asked Elson about this, and he replied:

When I was traveling through Chicago last January on my way to Toronto to do an interview, I had some time between planes. Got a sandwich. No place to sit down so I literally walked into the back of a checkpoint that was enclosed by glass so everyone could see what was going on, sat down on a bench and ate my sandwich, and  watched. Noone touched the pilots. Ergo, all I needed was a pilot’s uniform, bought or stolen, and a photoshop badge. Put explosives on my body, no metal, walk through, pick up my stuff and off to the plane. Likewise, I could do something similar on the ramp. Best time is in cold weather and snow storms. Do it as night approaches. People don’t care about security, just getting the job done and getting out of the weather. Steal a bag tag, make an unauthorized entry (no problem), walk up to a plane and throw it in with 50 lbs explosive.

Elson has always contended that the body scanner couldn’t detect explosives in body cavities. In his email he added this: “The machine can see through a thin layer of clothing and probably detect explosives strapped to the body.” But he pointed out that Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes” worried about exposing private parts, but  noted she could see a woman’s bra. “If she could see the bra, that means she could not see through the bra. A bra bomb or explosives molded to the breast wouldn’t be seen,” he continues. “And a woman, because of her anatomical construction, could easily… bring a several pound IED fully assembled with timer, detonator, power sources right through the checkpoint. If scanned or patted down it would make no difference. Once on the plane she has the option to leave it in  the plane…and get off.” Ellison warns that a well planned Al Qaeda operation, “if they did it right, could knock down 50 planes in 30 minutes. Think about what that would do to US air operations.”

In my opinion, the best answer to airport security is the mass deployment of dogs. Give me a friendly German Shepherd, and I’ll gladly submit to being sniffed, rather than patted, wanded, or scanned. But unlike the scanner companies, dogs have no powerful lobbyists, like former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, to advocate on their behalf.

Make room for Fido

9/11: One Family’s Brave Effort to Expose Airline Culpability

An article in Saturday’s  New York Times describes how all the families suffering losses on 9/11 have now taken settlements, receiving some $7 billion from the government and $500 million in private suits–all the families, that is, save one.

The one holdout is the family of Mark Bavis, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to strike the World Trade Center. Ever since the family filed suit in 2002, it has spurned efforts to negotiate, despite settlement attempts and a court mediation session.

They recognize that they could have obtained a quicker resolution by settling; they say the case is not about money. They say they want to prove in a public courtroom what they and their lawyers believe was a case of gross negligence by United and other defendants that allowed the hijackers to board Flight 175 and the attacks to occur.

The Bavis family is seeking damages directly from the airlines. Their suit represents the last real possibility for an independent inquiry into the culpability of these private carriers–not to mention the “regulators” at the Federal Aviation Administration, who appeared intent on serving the airlines rather than the public. It’s a long shot perhaps, but the Bavis suit might achieve some of what the expensive, timid, and inconclusive 9/11 Commission Report could not. 

As the Times article points out, they have identified several areas in which the airlines’ negligence contributed to the events of 9/11 (emphasis added):

Donald A. Migliori, a lawyer with Motley Rice, the firm that represents the Bavises and was involved in more than 50 other cases, said the firm’s investigation had focused on failures at airport security checkpoints, flawed cockpit doors, inadequate training and how the industry ignored confidential government warnings about terrorist threats.“The security breaches that day,” he said, “were absolutely known to these defendants before 9/11, and should have been addressed before this could happen.”

My 2005 book, The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, also explores these same areas, and sets out in detail the chain of evidence that demonstrates airline and government negligence leading up to the attacks. A few excerpts, citing factual records, follow. Readers can judge for themselves whether the airlines and government are culpable.

Failures at Airport Security Checkpoints

[In the 1990s], following the Pan Am 103 bombing, the FAA had been directed by Congress to create a “Red Team” to test airport security. A Red Team consists of a handful of people, often drawn from military special operations, to pose as terrorists and attempt to break through airport security–in effect, to stage unannounced mock terrorist attacks, and report on the airlines’ performance in thwarting these attacks…

An October 1998 report by one airline, which was passed around the company offices in the United States, describes a meeting held the previous month with the FAA to discuss security at the San Francisco airport. Among other things, the report noted that the FAA’s Red Team “worked around different areas in SFO airport. They managed to break through different security screenings repeatedly in many different areas. Of 450 times when they were working their way past different security points to get to secure areas they were caught only 4 times.” SFO was one of the airports that had been targeted in the 1993 tests, and cited for a 60 percent failure rate. Five years later, the failure rate was 99.11 percent.

The report stated that the Red Team “managed to get by passenger Xray screening repeatedly (7 times) having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle. Also, having an automatic Mac machine gun under their jacket on their back.” The team also easily entered the airlines’ private lounges and put bombs in the passengers’ carry-on luggage, which was not examined before they boarded the plane. Gaining entrance to the ramp area, they entered Skychef catering trucks, and with ease placed whatever they wanted to in the food trolleys. No one questioned them. “Most of the times the catering truck driver was either asleep or reading a book or just looking at the sky or waving a friendly hello,” according to the San Fransisco report. The intruders showed false IDs and then easily drove a van onto the ramp area, although the vehicle had no official plates or security seals. They boarded aircraft at will, and “could easily have placed a bomb on board.”

All of this activity was videotaped by the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Port Hueneme, California, with the idea of using it as a training film for airport security personnel. But when the FAA saw how bad things were, they deep-sixed the video…

According to Andrew Thomas [in his book Aviation Insecurity], “For years, Logan was known throughout the industry as one of the least secure airports in the nation.” In April 2001, Deborah Sherman of Boston’s Fox News station undertook her own investigation of air security at Logan airport, with the help of former Red Team member Steve Elson. Airing on May 6, 2001, her report showed serious security flaws, including knives smuggled through security and unguarded access to secure areas–making Logan clearly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The report had been instigated by Brian Sullivan, an FAA New England security agent who had retired earlier in the year and was seeking to blow the whistle on what he had observed on the job. On May 7, the day after the program aired, Sullivan sent a tape, along with a detailed and eloquent letter, to Senator John Kerry: “This report once again demonstrated what every FAA line agent already knows, the airport passenger screening system simply doesn’t work as intended. The FAA would like [rather] continue to promulgate a façade of security, than to honestly assess the system. Management knows how ineffective the current system is, but continues to tell Congress that our airport screening is an effective deterrent.”

Flawed Cockpit Doors

There was ample  evidence of how easily cockpits could be breached. As Andrew Thomas reports in Aviation Insecurity, in the two years prior to September 11, 2001, passengers managed to enter the cockpits of commercial airplanes thirty times. In one 2000 case, a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight was suffocated to death—apparently by other passengers—after he made repeated attempts to take over the cockpit. In another case the same year, a deranged passenger entered the cockpit of a British Airways 747, bit the captain’s ear, grabbed the controls, shut off the autopilot, and sent the plane into a 10,000-foot dive before the co-pilot managed to regain control. Lack of cockpit security would, of course, become key to the terrorists’ success in the 9/11 attacks.

Inadequate Training

In 1996, President Clinton appointed a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, headed by Vice President Al Gore, to examine security within the industry–and especially security against possible terrorist attacks…A preliminary report, released in September 1996, elicited a flurry of unhappy responses from airline lobbyists. Gore quickly capitulated to the airline industry, writing a sheepish letter to Carol Hallet, president of the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group: “I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the Commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry,” and suggesting that government and industry could work “in full partnership.” According to a study conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the final weeks of the 1996 election campaign, with Clinton pitted against Bob Dole, the airlines poured $585,000 into the Democratic party coffers.

The Gore Commission did make some 50 recommendations, but many of the most vital proposals were gutted or simply ignored. The Commission recommended criminal background checks for airport security personnel, along with a changed work system that would reward performance, rather than just low costs, for both individual security staff and the security companies used by the airlines. The airlines scoffed that these measures would be too expensive, and the FAA (then under the leadership of Linda Daschle [who later became an airline industry lobbyist]) never pursued them.

One Commission member, Victoria Cummock, widow of a Pan Am 103 victim, wrote to Gore, “I register my dissent with the final report. . . . Sadly, the overall emphasis of the recommendations reflects a clear commitment to the enhancement of aviation at the expense of the Commission’s mandate of enhancing aviation safety and security. I can not sign a report that blatantly allows the American flying public to be regularly placed at unnecessary risk.” Cummock was quoted by CNN as saying, “I don’t know how we could really get a fair commission based on the degree of collusion that I see between the [airline] industry, the FAA, the DOT (Department of Transportation), and Al Gore.”

Industry Ignored Government Warnings About Terrorist Threats

In the six months prior to 9/11, FAA senior officials received 52 intelligence briefings regarding threats from Al Qaeda. “Among the 105 summaries issued between April 1, 2001 and September 10, 2001, almost half mentioned Bin Ladin, Al Qaeda, or both, mostly in regard to overseas threats,” the report said. In addition, the National Security Council’s Counterterrorism Security Group invited the FAA to a “meeting in early July 2001 at the White House to discuss with domestic agency officials heightened security concerns.”

The FAA also sent out informational circulars to warn airports and air carriers about security issues. Seven circulars were sent before 9/11–one on the threat posed by surface to air missiles, five on threats overseas, and one on July 31 mentioning hijacking. Yet while Jane Garvey said “she was aware of the heightened threat during the summer of 2001,” several other top agency officials, as well as senior airline official and veteran pilots, said they were not aware.

After BP’s Disaster and Obama’s “Malaise,” Coal Is the Big Winner

No sooner had Obama made his Oval Office energy speech last week  than the pundits were comparing him to Jimmy Carter, saying his Debby Downer message was just like the so-called “malaise speech” in which Carter tried to wise up the populace to the energy mess. The Sunday morning pontificators were falling over each other to make the comparison yesterday, and even Der Spiegel ran an article asking “Will Obama Be the ‘Jimmy Carter of the 21st Century’?”

I’m not even going to try to weigh in on that question. But I am old enough to remember the “malaise speech,” which was not quite the speech that’s now being depicted by the pundits. Carter’s speech in July 1979 decried American reliance on foreign oil and proposed fresh departures into alternative energy. One of its main points was to seek creation of a new energy corporation to back alternatives fuels. There were some nods to solar energy and other renewable sources, but the real push was toward the oxymoronic “clean coal” in the form of coal gasification and liquefaction, along with the mining of oil shale, which is one of the most environmentally destructive energy extraction methods ever invented.

Carter’s speech followed the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and as much as anything else was occasioned by the pressure he was under from the public outcry which followed that near-catastrophe. In addition, the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s was still a not-too-distant memory. So nuclear energy was effectively shelved, oil held more or less steady, and the biggest winner was the cheap and plentiful homegrown energy source: coal. Once scorned for its destructive strip-mining and filthy emissions, coal suddenly didn’t look so bad when compared with the risk of radiation poisoning–especially if it could be greenwashed and rebranded as a “clean” energy source.

The upshot of it all was hardly an energy “malaise’,” nor did it result in a major change in energy policy. Instead, it was a slight shift in strategy–a reshuffling of the cards. And in the end, it was the same old same old: The fossil fuel solution in a slightly different package. 

There, most likely, is where we’ll see a real parallel between Carter and Obama: If the BP spill is Obama’s Three Mile Island and the Iraq War his OPEC embargo, his reaction to these crises will probably echo Carter’s: coal, coal, and more coal. The president has long declared himself a fan of  coal, and back in February–before BP’s well exploded–he issued a presidential memorandum ordering a special task force to move forward with the questionable technologies that are supposed to render coal “clean.” As David Sassoon wrote at the time on SolveClimate:

Obama’s executive office memorandum looks like a big victory for the coal industry, which was already handed $3.8 billion in last year’s stimulus act for carbon capture and storage (CCS) research and development and deployment. He did not simultaneously order a similar plan for a big roll-out of solar or wind energy to level the playing field.

Making good on campaign promises, the president is throwing the full weight of his administration behind a moonshot effort to make coal the “clean” energy technology of choice and open a federal pathway to a profitable future for one of the nation’s most polluting industries.

Three factors have cemented Obama’s support for carbon capture and sequestration technology: political necessity, economic opportunity and the backing of some of the most powerful mainstream environmental organizations operating inside the Beltway.

If Obama’s support for coal was “cemented” before the BP disaster, I’d be willing to bet he loves it even more after spending some time with the dead birds and tar balls on the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Government, Brought to You By Big Oil

Long may she wave: The flag of the United States of Oil

Oil companies have begun to “weigh strategies to fight off tougher regulations” in the wake of BP’s spill to end all spills, the New York Times reported earlier this week. Supposedly, the companies are nervous because of President Obama’s angry takedown of the oil industry last week, as well as rumblings in Congress, where there are now efforts “to extend bans on new offshore drilling, strengthen safety and environmental safeguards and raise to $10 billion or more the cap on civil liability for an oil producer in a spill.”

Frankly, I don’t buy it. I’m quite willing to believe, as the Times story says, that the petroleum industry’s lobbyists have kicked into high gear. But I can’t believe the companies are really all that worried. Ever since John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870, the federal government has pretty much given the oil men exactly what they wanted, when and where they wanted it–from oil depletion allowances to tariff protection to cheap leases on the federal public domain (which includes the outer-continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Periodic government attempts to contain or regulate the industry have been little more than temporary annoyances, rather than major obstacles to Big Oil’s power or profits. This is hardly surprising, considering the kind of influence the oil companies wield at all levels of the U.S. government.

In 1911, for example, the U. S. Supreme Court found that Standard Oil, which was then controlling 85 percent of the industry, had violated anti-trust laws and conspired against the public good. “For the safety of the Republic,” the Court declared, “we now decree that this dangerous conspiracy must be ended” within six months. Standard Oil was broken up into a few dozen closely related smaller companies–the only result being that the nation’s energy lifeline was controlled by a cartel instead of a monopoly.

Another serious stab at regulation began in 1938 with the passage of the Natural Gas Act, which again tried to combat monopolistic pricing by giving the Federal Power Commission (predecessor to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) the authority to set “just and reasonable rates” for the transmission or sale of natural gas in interstate commerce. In 1954, in the Phillips decision, the Supreme Court held that the federal government should also regulate the price of natural gas at the wellhead–that is, at the point where the gas comes out of the ground. For the better part of a decade, the government fiddled around doing nothing, but then in the early Kennedy administration, the FPC came up with an area pricing plan. Although the focus here was on gas, everyone knew it was a warning shot at the oil industry, which owned and controlled most of the natural gas. To price gas, it would be necessary to get at the oil industry internal documents, revealing such things as the amounts of reserves, costs, and the like.

Immediately, the big oil and gas companies warned we would run out of gas if prices were not raised to stimulate greater production. In 1974, during the (largely manufactured) energy “crisis,” the FPC took the first steps to undercut its own proposed regulations by giving in to industry and hiking prices. Under Jimmy Carter, the government began the formal process of deregulating gas, a policy which carried forward under Reagan and both Bush’s as part of the Republican right wing’s drive against regulation. Once the government gave in, the gas shortage disappeared and today we are supposedly awash with gas. All this was accomplished by industry manipulation of production and reserve figures—the same thing that has happened during all oil “shortages.”

In the wake of the BP disaster, it’s become abundantly clear that the oil industry itself has been writing the rules for offshore drilling, and not federal regulators at the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. “Nearly 100 industry standards set by the American Petroleum Industry are included in the nation’s offshore operating regulations,” McClatchy reported last month. “The API asserts that its standards are better for the industry’s bottom line and make it easier to operate offshore than if the Minerals Management Service set the rules.”  

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the MMS approved “categorical exclusions’’ from environmental review for BP’s offshore wells in the Gulf, including the Deepwater Horizon. Congressional probes already suggest Minerals Management worked in collusion with BP and other oil firms to increase offshore production without regard to safety or environmental standards. Over the last month, the litany of MMS’s failures, and its more than “cozy” relationship with the oil industry, has been extensively documented by the press (including MJ’s Kate Sheppard, here and here).  With government oversight of this caliber, we ought to stop wondering how a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill could happen, and start wondering where it’s going to happen next.

Failure to devise any sort of meaningful regulation of the oil and gas business means that we really don’t know what the industry does, or where or how. Information on the country’s reserves are left in the hands of the companies, not the federal government. Since the US Geological Survey, which is supposed to map the public domain never had the money to do the job right, large parts of the public lands have not been thoroughly mapped by anyone but the companies that exploit it. Relying on industry data has resulted time after time in false information–as in the case of gas in the 1970s energy crisis–to inflate or deflate the amounts of oil and gas reserves.

Beyond failing at its own oversight function, the workings of the MMS also make it difficult for independent analysts to assess what is really going on. Earlier this week, a coalition of scientific societies underlined the problems in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:  

Without a transparent and ethical process for dealing with scientific research and scientific conduct, the science that is performed at DOI may be called into question. This will not only harm the reputation of DOI, but will threaten the conservation of the nation’s treasured natural resources.  To ensure that science is being used properly to implement natural resource decisions, science should not be suppressed, scientific misconduct should be punished, and scientists who report suppression or other scientific misconduct should be afforded whistleblower protections.  Additionally, the science that informs natural resource decisions must be clear, transparent, and subject to independent peer review.

Such changes are unlikely to be implemented even in the wake of the BP spill. The secrecy surrounding federal energy policy was underscored by the confidential meetings organized by Dick Cheney with the oil and gas industry, as part of the Vice President’s “task force” to design a new national energy policy in the early years of the Bush Administration. Those meetings, the details of which remain hidden from the public—their confidentiality supported by the courts—are the most glaring recent example of energy policy formed in secret, and in collusion with the energy industry. In other words, in America, the oil companies not only write their own regulations and perform their own oversight; they also set energy policy and draft laws.

In addition to having their way with the executive and legislative branches of government, the oil companies have largely triumphed over the judicial system as well. Government policy plays into oil company interests not only by letting them do as they please, but also in limiting their liability when things inevitably go wrong. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, White House energy advisor (and former Clinton EPA head) Carol Browner repeated the pledge that BP would pay all cleanup costs for the spill. This is true, as far as it goes, and BP too has promised to pay for the cleanup. But you can just see lawyers haggling in court over what constitutes a cleanup cost.

In addition to the outright cleanup costs, BP also  faces cost of  up to a total of  $75 million for damages not associated with the oil spill itself—such things as fishing and tourism. That amount would be woefully insufficient in this case. Finally, some of the $1.6 billion stashed in Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund could be spent in a cleanup. This fund is made up of industry taxes of 8 cents per barrel, and there is a cap of $1 billion on how much of that can be withdrawn. The House  recently undertook efforts to raise the cap and increase the industry taxes going into  the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. But since this Trust Fund is created by taxing oil, you can be sure that one way or another, the cost will be passed on to consumers, rather than coming out of oil company profits.  

Finally, the Supreme Court could decide to give a special parting gift to BP, as they did to Exxon following the Valdez spill. In that case, an Anchorage jury brought in a verdict of $5 billion in punitive damages against Exxon. In 2008, after nearly two decades of litigation, the Supreme Court reduced the damages to $500 million–a tenth of the original verdict. The decision, written by Justice Souter, cited ”the need to protect against the possibility…of awards that are unpredictable and unnecessary, either for deterrence or for measured retribution.” It’s hard to believe five Supreme Court Justices believed that $5 billion wouldn’t be a more effective “deterrent” to future negligence than $500 million. But apparently, the highest court in the land wanted to make sure that a jury of citizens didn’t go overboard in demanding responsible behavior from America’s favorite industry.

Obama’s “Revelations” and the Oil Industry’s Slimy History

“What’s been made clear from this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves,” President Obama said last week in his press conference on the BP oil spill. “I was wrong,” he declared,  “in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.”

Ya think? If this isn’t a textbook example of closing the barn door after the horse is out, I don’t know what is. In fact, it isn’t even closing the door so much as acknowledging that the barn actually has a door, which we might want to consider using once in a while if we don’t want the horses running wild. What the President’s statement reminds me of most is Alan Greenspan’s admission, after the economic meltdown took place, that there just might be a tiny “flaw” in his approach to financial regulation. “I made a mistake,” Greenspan told Congress in October 2008, “in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”

In the aftermath of his press conference, political pundits seem to be focused on whether Obama–and by implication the federal government–was taking too much responsibility for the spill, or not enough. Only a few have pointed out the patent absurdity of believing in the first place that the oil companies could be trusted to “have their act together” when it came to either preventing or dealing with massive spills. The history of global oil spills over the last half-century shows a pattern of carelessness and ineptitude on the part of the industry–and of failure on the part of governments who tried to intervene after the fact.

When the tanker Torrey Canyon drove straight into the rocks off Land’s End in Britain in 1967, spilling its 31-million-gallon cargo, chemical dispersants were spread on the expanding slick with no result. According to the “Report to the Committee of Scientists on the Scientific and Technological Aspects of the Torrey Canyon Disaster,” the British Air Force was called in to set the oil afire by bombing it. Some of it eventually caught fire; most of it did not. A Dutch salvage team  thought they could fix things by pulling the ship off the rocks, but the tow cable broke. The spill ended up killing marine life and spreading glop all over the beaches of Southern England and some in France as well.

In 1969, a well on the outercontinental shelf six miles off Santa Barbara, California, went out of control. All initial efforts to control the spilling oil were as futile. When the flow was finally stopped after 11 days, 3 million gallons had escaped and coated the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara channel. (At the time it was considered a devastating disaster, and helped fuel the fledgling environmental movement in California–though the numbers sound almost quaint compared with the current BP spill.) After the Santa Barbara spill, the U.S. government came up with a plan to keep teams of experts from different parts of government on standby, so they could fly in and assess damage in the event of a spill.

In 1969 alone, the Coast Guard was reporting 1,007 oil spills in U.S. coastal waters. Many others were not reported. (It was standard practice for ships to pump waste oil into the water on approaching port.) That same year, a Woods Hole Oceangraphic research project in the Sargasso Sea, reported “quantities of oil-tar lumps up to 3 inches in diameter were caught in the nets…It was estimated that there was three times as much tar-like material as Sargasso weed. Similar occurrences have been reported worldwide by observers from this as well as other institutions.’’

In 1970 an Onassis tanker called the Arrow hit Cerberus Rock off Nova Scotia.  It was the Torrey Canyon all over again. Detergents were sprayed with no effect. The U.S. Army dispatched teams armed with  flame throwers to burn it up, which didn’t work. Chemists from Pittsburgh Corning Glass arrived with bags of little glass balls intended to act as wicks for burning the oil, but these did not ignite. Fiberglass collars set up to keep the spreading oil out of a fish processing plant also failed. Attempts to pull the ship off the rocks were futile. Eventually a gale broke the tanker’s back and the stern sank in one hundred feet of water with one million gallons of congealed crude oil aboard. In this case, by pure luck, the remaining oil stayed inside the tanker until a salvage team pumped it out a few months later.

In 1979, Pemex’s Ixtac oil well, in the Gulf off of Campeche, Mexico, suffered a blowout. Through various measures–some of them similar to those currently being used on the Deepwater Horizon spill–the flow of oil from the blown well was slowed from 30,000 to 10,000 barrels a day, but it took nearly ten months for it to be stopped completely. By that time, an estimated 3 million barrels had reached the U.S. Gulf coast. 

The 1970s through the 1990s saw more than a dozen spills larger than the Exxon Valdez, pouring oil into the waters off Trinidad, Uzbekistan, Iran, Angola, South Africa, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Mozambique, Chile, and Sweden.

As for the Valdez disaster itself, its effects still linger nearly two decades after the 1989 spill. During that time, suits against Exxon made their way through courts, resulting in a $5.5 billion jury trial settlement. But the Supreme Court later thought this was too much money, and cut the settlement to $1 billion. No fine ever levied against the oil industry has seriously inhibited its ability to keep doing business as usual–or employing lobbyists, or making campaign contributions. And to my knowledge, no oil company executives have ever gone to jail for the environmental devastation caused by their negligence or greed.

This, perhaps, is the real lesson of history when it comes to oil spills: It isn’t enough, even, to close the barn door, if you allow the horses to keep making hay.

BP’s Image Coated in Sludge After Years of Greenwashing

For the last decade, BP has been busily engaged in a multi-million dollar greenwashing campaign. Changing its name from British Petroleum to just BP, the company adopted a new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum,” and began a “rebranding” effort to depict itself as a public-spirited, environmentally sensitive, green energy enterprise, the very model of 21st century corporate responsibility.

It’s going to take more than a name change and a clever ad campaign to erase the image of oil spreading across the Gulf Coast from BP’s offshore rig, and dead wildlife washing up onto its beaches. Even as it magnanimously agreed to cover the costs of cleaning up the mammoth spill, BP on Monday was still insisting that it wasn’t at fault for the accident that caused it–blaming it instead on the offshore drilling contractor that operated the rig, which exploded and then collapsed. So much for corporate responsibility.

Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP’s green image was nothing more than a scam. While making miniscule investments in things like solar power, biofuels, and carbon fuel cells that backed its PR claims, BP continued to work relentlessly to expand its oil and gas operations. In the last decade, the world’s second largest producer of fossil fuels, the company drilled (and spilled) vast quantities of oil and gas on Alaska’s North Slope and in the North Sea. It positioned itself to rip up Canada’s tar sands to extract its dirty oil, and grabbed a 50 percent interest in Iraq’s rich Rumaila oil field. BP boasted the highest number of explosions and other accidents at its U.S. refineries (several of them deadly), and made the Multinational Monitor’s 10 Worst Companies lists in 2000 and 2005, based on its environmental and human rights record.

But BP clearly believed that green was in the eye of the beholder. The company’s move toward green marketing began in 1997, when it quit the industry’s climate change denial group, the Global Climate Coalition, and acknowledged a possible link between global warming and the use of fossil fuels. By 2000, the vertically integrated multinational—which explores, extracts, transports, refines, and sell fuels through its myriad gas stations–had bought up Amoco, Arco, and Burmah Castrol. It united them under the BP brand with a feel-good flowering sun logo, and hired the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mathers to launch a $200 million rebranding campaign.

As Ogilvy executive John Seifert described it in 2002, then BP CEO John Browne—or, to use his full title, Lord Browne of Madingley–“came to me with a dream proposal. He said, ‘I want this company to be a force for good in this world. Build that image and I will hold the company accountable to it,’” The problem, Seifert said, was, “No other industry is more loathed and distrusted by the public than the energy industry, and yet no other industry is more critical to modern survival. The reality is that no matter how much consumers resent energy companies, they still drive their cars and leave on the lights and turn the other cheek.” His solution was a campaign that “bridges the us/them barrier, that brings the consumer into the debate so that we can address the problem together.”

By 2004, BP was running its “BP on the Street” nationwide ad campaign, featuring of what one BP executive described to Adweek as “a radical conversation with consumers about the paradox of the need for energy and the cost for getting it.” TV spots showed ordinary looking people being asked questions like, “What would you rather have, a car or a cleaner environment?” Says one woman, “I can’t imagine being without my car. But that compromise is very hard to make where we are.” Then the punch line flashes on the screen: “We voluntarily introduced cleaner fuels, six years before EPA mandates … these low-sulphur fuels reduce ozone pollution….It’s a start.” Whew. Thank goodness for BP, saving us from making those tough choices between preserving the polar ice caps and taking the bus.

Other ads had the appearance of being hard-hitting—including one that asked people what they would like to say to oil company executives. “Think about your children,” one woman says. “They’re breathing the air I’m breathing, that you’re breathing, and it’s bad. And down the line, they will suffer. And you know, think about that. You know, if you have alternatives, invest the money in alternatives. You’ll still make money. It won’t make you a Communist. It’ll just make you a better human being.”  The television and print ads always ended with a plug for BP as “a global leader” in clean energy production. (Some examples appear at the end of this post.)

Accompanying the ad campaign was a series of public pronouncements from Lord Browne, who had been dubbed the “sun king” and the “green oilman,” and was also reputed to be Tony Blair’s favorite businessman. Browne announced a plan to reduce company-wide greenhouse gas emissions, and another to invest $8 billion in alternative energy and greenhouse gas abatement projects–an impressive figure that was actually a pittance relative to BP’s overall budget.

The gimmicks appeared to work. In 2001, BP had already been chosen as the “company that does most to protect the environment” in a survey by the Financial Times that polled not only corporate executives but also activist groups and the media. “There appears to be near consensus,” the paper reported, that BP “has made exceptional efforts to replenish environmental resources, develop alternative fuels and communicate with stakeholders.” As for the general public, a 2007 “green brands survey” found that BP was perceived as more green than any of the other petroleum companies, and also headed the list of companies that had “become more green” in the previous five years.

And what else was going on at BP while it was supposed to be “becoming more green”?

  • In 2004, BP engaged in a “massive manipulation” of the U.S. propane market. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission ordered the company to pay $303 million in criminal penalties and restitution to victims of its trading abuses.
  • In 2005, a devastating explosion and fire at a BP refinery in Texas BP killed 15 workers and injured 170 others. In 2007, BP was fined $50 million for environmental damage causes by the refinery blast. In 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied an additional fine of $87 million fine–the largest in OSHA’s history–for the company’s “failure to correct potential hazards faced by employees.”
  • In 2006, more than 260,000 gallons of crude poured onto the Arctic tundra from a BP pipeline near Prudhoe Bay—the worst onshore spill in Alaskan history. Whistleblowers had already revealed that BP ignored warnings about leaking and corroded pipelines and had tried to cover up earlier, smaller spills, and Congressional investigations found that negligence and cost-cutting were factors in the 2006 disaster. BP was fined more than $20 million.
  • In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department announced a fine of $303 million against BP for “massive manipulation” of energy markets in 2004.
  • Also in October 2007, the U.S. Minerals Management Service fined BP for a series of violations related to a near-blowout at an offshore rig in 2002. The violations included inadequate training of BP workers in “well control.”

During the period that all of these human and environmental catastrophes were going on, BP sales rose from $192 billion in 2004 to $240 billion in 2005, and then to $266 billion in 2006. The company’s profits fell in 2007 following the disasters and fines, but began rebounding as soon as BP announced massive layoffs. The dapper Lord Browne of Madingley, however, resigned after reports faulted his leadership in contributing to the accidents–and after he was found to have lied to a court about his relationship with a former male escort.

BP’s new CEO, Tony Hayward, had been head of Exploration and Production for BP since 2003. According to the New York Times, Hayward “promised to refocus the company and change the culture, emphasizing safety.” In the last few years, BP has spent less time promoting itself as a green company and more time depicting itself as safe, competent, and forward-thinking–a claim that has now proven even more preposterous than the greenwashing was.  

The Times article remarked that for Hayward, “the accident threatens to overshadow all of the efforts he has made to burnish the tattered reputation of the company.” In a meeting with BP executives in London following the spill, Hayward reportedly asked, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”

Tony Hayward himself has the answer, since according to the Times, “He also expanded the company’s already aggressive exploratory efforts in the deep waters of the gulf.” In fact, “last year, the same platform that has now sunk to the sea floor drilled the deepest well in history, opening one of the largest new fields in the world.” New information is emerging every day on the many ways in which BP cut corners when it came to safeguards on the rig–some of them implicated in the current disaster. 

Hayward got a 40 percent pay increase in 2009 based on BP’s “improved performance.” And just recently, the company announced earnings of $5.6 billion for the first quarter of 2010, more than double the same quarter last year. The disaster in the Gulf, of course, has not been good for BP’s share prices. But a Morningstar oil stock analyst blithely told the New York Times that the worst oil spill in U.S. history “will test Tony and his ability to respond to this situation.” She confidently concluded, “Certainly, BP will survive this.” 

Whether the Gulf Coast will survive it is, of course, another question. If it were up to me, I’d gladly trade the future of BP for the life of one sea turtle.

Dude, where’s my fuel? 2006 ads from BP’s greenwashing campaign.

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Michael Elswick Went to be with the Lord on Monday April 5

Many younger people spend their time deriding the coal industry without taking into consideration the lives of the people who work in the mines. The miners are simply dismissed as a handful of left-behind workers from another era, who are now standing in the way of “sustainability.” What these people don’t understand is that coal was the backbone of the Industrial Revolution and the engine that powered America. It’s not just going to disappear; you can’t wipe out a history of 150 years, and you can’t forget about the people who have risked–and still risk–their lives in the mines every day.

Coal is a dirty business, and as I’ve written myself, a lot of the coal companies are just as dirty. There’s no doubt that changes have to be made in the coal industry for environmental reasons, not to mention the safety of workers. But until the climate changers get themselves down into the hills and hollows of West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky, and see the human faces of the coal business, they’re not going to get anywhere.

Ken Ward, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, is a journalist who gets coal. If you want to know about the business and what it means to the people who live in these hills, take a look at his writing from time to time. This morning I went to Ward’s Coal Tattoo blog and found this entry,which seems to me to tell it all. So I am reprinting it in full.

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Michael Lee “Cuz” Elswick, 56, of Elkview went to be with the Lord on Monday, April 5, 2010, after a terrible mining accident.

He was preceded in death by his mother and father, Lee and Willidean Elswick of Wharton.

Michael was an employee of Massey Energy, a dedicated coal miner of 36 years. He was a member of the Dunbar First Church of God and a very dedicated husband, father, grandfather and friend to all he met.

Michael is survived by his loving wife of 36 years, Bobbie Elmore Elswick; son, Jeremy Elswick; daughter, Jami Cash and husband, Philip; and grandchildren, Justin and Hannah Cash, all of Elkview; sister, Pam Miller of Wharton; and brothers, Larry Elswick of Charleston and Steven Elswick of Wharton.

He will be very deeply missed by all who knew and loved him.

God bless all the families who lost their loved ones that horrific day at the UBB Mine.