Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's BP's Oil - And Just WHO Is BP?

"It's BP's oil," Barbara Martin, BP representative, Grand Isle, La.

Last Saturday I participated in the Rogers Park Coffee Party's conversation with Riki Ott. Ostensibly it was about the Citizens United case and the effort to amend the Constitution to state that only naturally born entities can be persons. Corporations, business alliances, unions, non-governmental organizations and non-profits (to name a few) would not be recognized as persons if the amendment passed. They would not have free speech rights (the core of the decision in Citizens United) nor any other rights afforded to naturally born entities under the Constitution. The ongoing cleanup effort in the Gulf, led and managed by BP, was the touchstone for the discussion. Unfortunately it didn't go as far as it could have.

Riki, a marine toxicologist, has a deep understanding of the potential impact of the spill. She is from Alaska and has worked with the folks who are still feeling the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill. She had just spent three weeks in the Gulf working with the fishermen and reported on the respiratory issues they were encountering. Riki believes the government could do more, however this article from the Wall Street Journal describes the many ways the country, including the government, is simply unprepared for these events. The ball was dropped all over the place.

Riki's experience, important as it is, overshadowed the discussion of corporate personhood and we didn't spend nearly as much time as needed on the issue. Today, courtesy of a friend on Facebook, I ran into this article from Mother Jones. It describes, from another vantage point, the problems Riki told us about. BP "owns" most of what is happening in the Gulf, including the cleanup, and while it appears we have the government's foot on their neck, the truth is they are in charge and moving at a pace they feel secure with. It is a hot mess, that is certain. What does it have to do with corporate personhood?

BP is a person under the law. They are endowed with some rights, including free speech and protection from warrantless searches and seizures. It would appear, based on the Mother Jones article and Riki's experience, that they are an entity to be negotiated with over how to conduct the cleanup. Witness their response to EPA's request (request!) that they change dispersants and their response to House requests regarding flow rates. The live feed came about after much pushing by the House. BP "owns" the cleanup primarily because it is their problem to solve, but also because the government generally lacks the resources and technology to run the cleanup. The government is relying on BP for information. But BP's status as a person has to be a factor as well. How do you negotiate with something that is not naturally born unless you endow it with "life"?

Because BP is a person, the individuals making decisions are not necessarily legally accountable for the outcomes. Enron provided a demonstration on taking corporate leadership to court, but BP's activities are not regulated by the SEC. If BP goes bellyup today, tomorrow, or sometime in the future, it's resources may be available for sale by the government to help offset the costs of the cleanup, but the leadership will be out of legal reach unless some charge can be brought under existing law, rule or regulation, that holds them accountable for operational decisions. Make no mistake, decisions were made on the Deepwater Horizon by individuals directly employed by BP or under the direction of the BP representative (company man) that caused this disaster. Stripping BP of personhood might not have prevented the blowout or change what is happening in the Gulf right now, but it would put the leadership (and that of Transocean, Cameron, Halliburton and Schlumberger) squarely under the gun of accountability. And that just might change their approach and willingness to be transparent about what is happening at the wellhead and the characterization of the environmental effects.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is an example of why the rules must change and personhood must be limited to naturally born entities only. Until that happens we will continue to see naturally born persons hiding behind the legal designation of "person" afforded to the non-natural entities they are a part of. Groups of people, protected by a designation that is the result of a judicial action in the 19th century, will continue to make decisions and take actions without concern for being held personally accountable.

Until the rules change, it will be BP's oil.

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