Oil money

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom’s kind permission.

This might be an opportune time to make a disclosure: I am a BP shareholder. Admittedly, I’ve never attended the company’s annual meeting, and if I did, I would have very little weight to throw around.

Those who believe that the price of my BP stock will recover in the next year might be wrong. Even if the stock bottoms out, however, that won’t restore a shattered Gulf, nor will it change a system that prizes easy consumption and deferred responsibility. We can only correct for the catastrophe oil has wrought by living according to a different measure.

I own two shares of BP stock. I received my stake in the company as a Christmas gift in 1989, when I was 14 years old. The previous June, I had taken a “summer enrichment” course in the Des Moines public schools, designed as an introduction to the world of business. The teacher gave each of us in the class a modest hypothetical budget to invest in the stock market.

Earnest young capitalists, we made our picks and then followed the quotes in the morning paper. I invested heavily in Amoco and finished the summer feeling that my portfolio had done quite well. As a result, my younger brother decided that I should receive a real piece of the enterprise that was once John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. He conspired with my mom to get me an Amoco share for the holidays.

I’ve watched the oil industry as an interested party ever since. In 1998, my Amoco stock split, turning my one share into two. Then, a few months later, the company was acquired by BP. This “oil mega-merger,” as the BBC called it, gave me a stake in yet another energy titan. It also allowed the combined corporation to shed 6,000 jobs, prompting its new chief executive, Sir John Browne of BP, to confidently assure the press that “he hoped the merger will increase pre-tax profits of the two partners by ‘at least’ two billion dollars by the end of 2000.”

The merger proved profitable indeed. Over time, the price of my stock nearly doubled. I received dividends every three months, usually of around 60 cents per share. And by the mid-2000s, BP was making some $20 billion per year in profits. The numbers looked good.

Of course, these are not the only numbers to consider. In fact, in the wake of BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they don’t seem like the right numbers at all. It’s time for a different accounting: What has that catastrophic spill cost our society? What price do we pay for our dependence on oil? How do we measure these things?

Costs of business

When I first began receiving Amoco’s annual reports, they featured photos that celebrated robust industrial capabilities, like multicolored sunsets behind fields of horsehead oil pumps in Texas. These days, there’s still some of that, but the reports tend to have more shots of solar panels, white windmills, and smiling school children (our future). Someone looking at the annual review the company sent me in 2001, for instance, might have been fooled by the photos of lush, palm-heavy landscapes in Indonesia, California, and Trinidad into thinking that it was a mailing from Conservation International.

Such changes in public relations were born of tragedy. Back in 1989, not three months before my summer business class, the Exxon Valdez collided with the Bligh reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, breaching its hull. Even according to conservative estimates, it spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil and contaminated more than 1,200 miles of ecologically sensitive coastline. For years afterwards, we saw Exxon deal with the fallout of the catastrophe.

However many thousands of boats and booms the company deployed, it only managed to recover about 8 percent of the oil released. The rest evaporated, coated beaches, or sank to the bottom of the sea. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates that 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs were killed by the spill. Two decades later, some 16,000 gallons of leftover oil still poison wildlife in the Prince William Sound.

The cost to the planet was steep. The cost to Exxon could have been severe as well. While the company claims that it spent $2.1 billion on its clean-up efforts, it might have had to pay many times that in fines and lawsuit settlements. The government initially threatened $5 billion in criminal penalties, and in 1994 a federal jury ordered the company to pay $5.2 billion in punitive damages to Alaskans who had filed a class-action lawsuit. For a time, things at Exxon looked grim.

Although these were the worries of a rival corporation, Amoco investors did get a taste of what Exxon was experiencing. In 1990, after a dozen years of litigation, a federal judge in Chicago ordered my company to pay $132 million in damages to the French government and other parties. They had all been harmed 12 years earlier when the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the coast of Brittany, releasing 68 million gallons of oil. At the time, it was the largest tanker spill ever. It killed millions of sea urchins and mollusks, thousands of tons of oysters, and almost 20,000 birds.

In terms of the overall business, however, the judgment was only a blip on Amoco’s radar screen. In the end, Exxon never made any $10 billion payout for its disaster either. The first Bush administration allowed the company to plead guilty to a small number of charges and settled for penalties and fines of around $1 billion. The judge who ultimately approved the settlement had earlier worried that the amount was too low: “I’m afraid these fines send the wrong message,” he said, “and suggest that spills are a cost of business that can be absorbed.”

It was a prescient concern, especially given the resolution of the class-action suit. In that arena, Exxon’s lawyers proved patient and skilled. They held up the case in court for years until, in 2008, nearly two decades after the spill, the Supreme Court ruled that damages paid by the company would be limited to an exceptionally absorbable $507.5 million.