It’s a messy business exploiting nature. A lunch conversation with an old friend in the oil business helped put somethings into perspective for me.  I’m not just talking about out there on the rigs. The real mess is how these things are regulated, and the really slippery part is how to hold someone responsible for a major disaster while at the same time pooling all resources available, private and government, to fix the problem.

Having spent a grand total of two hours on an oil rig at sea I don’t really feel that qualified to speak about life there, but it did look like it could be tough but also a bit boring. From what I understand, ideally the personnel are subject to rigorous qualification, and are subject to strict work regulations.

BP had a reputation for being the most demanding in the industry when it came to safety and personnel. Yet from what I gather from people in the industry there were indications of a problem weeks before it came to a head. That’s one issue which is a pretty hot potato to be debated and dissected for years.

But more relevant to right now, is that after the leaks (also known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) finally blew out, weeks that passed with futile efforts before the drilling of relief wells began to be even talked about. Meanwhile it is nearly impossible to get an accurate idea of just how much oil has gushed out into a fragile ocean system.

The Deepwater Horizon containment and clean up  is BP’s responsibility. But if the US government moves in completely to take control of the situation, it then technically becomes the US government’s responsibility. This fact I am sure complicates and delays the effort to get the leaks under control, despite denials to the contrary from the relevant parties.

Then there will remain the issue of how to hold BP accountable. This is a difficult one: how does one punish the company with the best safety record? BP shares have already halved in value due to all the flak. But yet they are responsible and no one else. As the oil seeps its way into various Carribean territories, what are the international legal implications? And what happens in countries whose legal and political systems are not as open as the USA’s?

This post isn’t a rant about BP. Here in Indonesia we have an ongoing mudflow in Sidoardjo which has engulfed the homes of more than 60,000 people. Lapindo, the company responsible for the drilling which opened up the first mud ‘volcano’ has somehow exonerated itself. The owner of the company went on to become coordinating minister of welfare and now has presidential ambitions.

Meanwhile so many theories – earthquakes, fault lines etc – have been floated as a smoke screen to distract attention away from the fact that Lapindo simply neglected to use the regulation casing required for the type of drilling they were doing. The Indonesian government has now assumed responsibility for containment and compensation. We won’t even talk about clean up as the containment is failing miserably. Lapindo, incredibly, is for the most part off the hook.

Just a week ago the Indian courts handed down 2 year sentences to seven Union Carbide officers considered responsible for the disaster at their Bhopal plant that instantly killed 4000 people, and fatally poisoned many more. Of the seven, one is dead, and another, an American, is living in very comfortable retirement in the US. Although arguably different as this was the manufacturing sector, it was a deadly environmental disaster.

What we perhaps need in these cases is for the intervention of an international tribunal. Destroying the environment uncontrollably on a massive, unprecedented scale, displacing scores of thousands of people, causing the deaths of thousands of people – don’t these merit the arm of an impartial law which reaches across borders of nations and cronyism, and the vaguaries of extradition rules? Is there not a quantitative factor at which point gross negligence becomes a crime against the planet, against humanity?

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