Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: Reflections of Rev. L. Charles Stovall

Editor's note: Rev. L. Charles Stovall, a member of People For's African American Ministers in Action, contributed this post. Rev. Stovall is a pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas.

I met a man recently at a bus stop on my way to the office. Our conversation eventually came to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He said that he once owned a scuba diving company in the Gulf and his clients were usually associated with oil companies that siphoned oil from the Gulf of Mexico.

One day while diving, they discovered an accumulation of oil on the Gulf floor. He said that the oil had formed a pool about six feet deep on the bottom. When reported to the oil company that had hired his service, he was told that if anything was reported to anyone else, his company would either be delayed in getting paid, or might not be paid at all. It was not reported.

Because of that encounter he is skeptical about what is currently happening and the “truth” being told about the oil disaster. He said the oil companies will lie, mislead, and try their best to wash their hands of responsibility. He also said that the oil on top of the water is only a fraction of the oil that we should be concerned about. According him, some of the oil will float to the surface, but much of the oil will remain underwater.

Since our conversation, what he said has gained merit. One evening CNN reported that an underwater plume of oil twenty miles long was headed for Mobile, Alabama. That fact had been overshadowed by the immediate danger to the wetlands of Louisiana, the damage to the coastlines, the economic catastrophe, and the disruption of the way of life of the people of affected states. Even as I write another ominous massive underwater plume has been spotted.

The effects of this oil disaster will linger on for decades and generations. According to this man, the accumulation of oil they observed on the floor of the Gulf was the result of a spill that occurred more than twenty years ago, possibly in 1979. He says that tar balls from that event still wash up on some shores even today.

Several things come to mind. One is that liability needs to be established. British Petroleum (BP) and Transocean are in a finger pointing competition. BP was leasing the oil rig Horizon from Transocean. Both seem to want to find a way to cast blame on the other. So far I have not heard anything definitive about what caused the explosion that took the lives of eleven people, sank the Horizon, and resulted in the oil gushing into the Gulf.

I do not consider this “Obama’s Katrina” as some have referred to it as. Katrina was a natural disaster, this is not! The truth seems to be that this is another situation the Obama administration inherited from the previous Bush administration. My understanding is that the Bush administration backed off of requiring oil companies drilling in deep water to spend the money that would provide additional shut off valves and other safe guards in case of this type of occurrence. Because of that decision we find ourselves in a position where no amount of money and effort can compensate for the destruction of God’s creation nor replace the lives that were lost unnecessarily. One thing however has become clear. Our nation has an unhealthy relationship with oil companies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was ignored by BP when they told BP to stop using the dispersant it was using because of its toxicity. Other dispersants that are more environmental y friendly are available. In fact, the one used by BP has been banned by many other countries. Our government has allowed BP to determine what it is or is not going to do and this can no longer be accepted.

Three things we should be doing in going forward. First, we should remember that BP exists to make money for their stock holders. They are not ultimately concerned about the environment, but about profits. In fact, I wonder if the failed “top kill” attempt was a delay technique to buy time for BP until they could figure out a way to collect the oil from the drill. I wonder if BP is using the current dispersant because they already have contracts with the manufacturer. After all, this seems to be a lucrative well where each barrel is worth money. In addition, it needs to pay for the damage it is causing to life, livelihood, and the environment.

Although BP seems to have the technology, what it does with it should be directed by the government. It was mind boggling that video of the oil pouring out of the pipe was kept from the government until BP decided to show it. This is a national disaster. Because other nations share the gulf with us, this may well become an international event. This event should receive priority attention with the full force of the government acting on behalf of protection of the citizens and the natural resources of our nation.

Second, we should stop casually referring to this as simply “a spill” or “a leak.” A spill implies that something can be easily contained, wiped up and cleaned up. A leak implies that something can just be plugged up. This is a ruptured pipe that continues to bring devastation and wreck havoc. The reality of what is happening should not be understated or minimized. The government must take charge, and BP and Transocean should be held accountable for all current and future impact of this disaster.

Third and finally, we should watch, learn and be ready to respond as this plays out in light of the Citizens United vs. the FEC ruling by the Supreme Court that gave corporations the same rights as individuals. Since corporations operate in their own self interest, we need to insure that our government is not unduly influenced and controlled by corporations. If corporations can use their unlimited financial resources to influence elections, we will forever be enslaved by the will of corporations, many which are multi-national.

This current fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example as to why the government should control corporations, and not vice-versa. The remedy should not consider what is convenient or expedient for BP or Transocean. Currently, there is a parasitic relationship between the oil companies in the gulf region and the communities that rely on them. A parasite does not set out to kill the host, but keeps the host alive as long as the survival of the parasite depends on it. But the host is ultimately sickened and weakened by the draining of the nutrients by the parasite. Hopefully, we will find a way to not only end our dependence on foreign oil, but we will seek a future the releases us from the control of the oil companies.

As we move forward in this current crisis, all solutions to protecting our environment, our families and future generations should be taken into consideration. This should not depend on who BP or Transocean already have contracts with, but only on what works.

The conversation I had with the man at the bus stop has caused me to think more deeply about the importance of how the crisis in the Gulf is handled, and how we as a nation will recover, must recover what it means to have a nation governed “for the people and by the people.”