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Columns

May 18, 2010

Big Oil's legacy bubbling up from the gulf

COLUMBUS _ We were driving down River Road on the way to Curtis Lumber on Saturday morning when Uncle Chet observed, "You're low on gas."

The needle showed about an eighth of a tank left.

"We'll make it. This truck's pretty good on gas," I said.

"How good?"

"Oh, 20; maybe 18 around town."

"What year is this thing?" He peered out at the silver hood as we rounded a curve where the Unadilla River cuts close to the road.

"Ninety-three."

"So, in 1993, they were selling full-sized pickups that got 20 miles to the gallon," he said. "And 18 years later, with all the advances in science and technology, they're still only getting 20."

"If you're lucky," I said.

"That's got to change, drastically," Uncle Chet said. "We need trucks that get 50, cars that get a 100, and we need 'em now. The alternative is killing the oceans, BP style."

"The only good ocean's a dead ocean," I said.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a perfect illustration of Republican energy policy: Drill, baby, drill," he said. "Look what it's gotten us. A dead zone the size of France, oil plumes the size of Rhode Island sucking up the oxygen, poisoning the water."

"No more American shrimp," I said. "I guess if you were looking for a smart investment today, you'd find a shrimp farm in Thailand."

"No more shrimp, no more gulf coast of Florida, no more Sanibel Island, no more Key Biscayne or Key Largo, not the way they have been: unspoiled. Mother Earth's been poked in the eye and she doesn't like it. This oil may be flowing for a generation, moving with the Gulf Stream, shellacking the East Coast with black crude from the gulf."

"Maybe BP should change its name to Gulf," I said.

"Name's taken, but they may want to change it," he said. "This disaster has given a new twist to `Gulf Oil."'

"Well, look at the bright side," I said as we crossed Route 80 in Hoboken on the outskirts of New Berlin.

"What's that?"

"You won't have to wear sun tan oil at the beach anymore."

"You won't have to swim at the beach anymore, either," he said. "You know what gets me?"

"What?"

"That they don't have any equipment, any idea of how to deal with this. They're just fumbling around, pretending they know what they're doing, but they don't know how contain a spill this size. I don't mean just BP. I mean the industry, the regulators, everyone. They're pushing to open more and more ocean floor to drilling, but they don't know what they're doing."

"Or don't care, as long as they're making money," I said.

"It's the financial meltdown, all over again," he said. "It's just taking place in the water, instead of on Wall Street. A huge, largely unregulated industry, operating in the shadows, taking huge risks without our knowledge. They get away with it, well after well, trade after trade, until one day it all blows up, and then we get a glimpse of what's really going on."

"Like roulette," I said. "But isn't that the essence of capitalism? You take your chances?"

"No, this is corporatism, the opposite of capitalism," he said. "Here, you takes your chances, mislead everyone except the insiders, pocket a bundle, then foist your losses onto the public when the jig's up."

"Geesh," I said as I slowed down as we crossed Wharton Creek.

"Capitalism works only when you're forced to cover your actual damages," he said. "In other words, it can't work without sensible regulation to safeguard the public and rein in the crazies. Without rules, you're inviting the corporation to behave like a highwayman, and unfortunately that's what we're seeing more and more of."

"And it's probably legal."

"Sure it's legal," he said. "We were ruled by Big Oil for eight years, and the legacy of that is bubbling up now."

Cooperstown Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week. For more of his columns, visit www.thedailystar.com/tomgrace.

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