Drilling and killing: From the Gulf of Guinea to the Gulf of Mexico. By Horace Campbell

Via: Pambazuka News.

The massive oil spill triggered by the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, is raising awareness among US citizens of the lethal side-effects of the petroleum industry, the negative impacts of which have largely been felt in ecosystems and communities abroad, writes Horace Campbell. Moreover, following on the Copenhagen and Cochabamba conferences on climate change, it has ‘created another base for cooperation and coordination among environmental activists in all parts of the world’ to campaign for oil to be left ‘in the ground and beneath the ocean floor’.

It was simply a matter of time before the systematic destruction being carried out by petroleum companies around the world would reach the living rooms of the citizens of North America. In the wake of the tonnes of oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and the destruction of the coastline of the United States since 20 April 2010, there has been increased awareness of the nested loop of criminality and killing that for generations has been set in motion by petroleum companies.

An oil rig called the Deepwater Horizon located about 51 miles (82 kilometres) southeast of Venice, Louisiana (United States) exploded, burst into flames on 20 April in the Gulf, killing 11, injuring other crew members and sending a billowing plume of black smoke into the sky.

The exact nature of the cause of the explosion is still being kept secret by the oil companies, hidden among the multiple layers of public relations and engineering organisations that are funded by the petroleum giants. With each passing day since 20 April, the citizens of the United States have begun to learn of the unlimited powers of these fossil fuel companies who operate across all the territories of the planet. The semi-submersible drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, was built in South Korea but owned and operated by Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, which is registered in Switzerland. Transocean worked with a oilfield service industry company, Haliburton, leased by a British company, with the rig flying the flag of Pacific Ocean island, the Marshall Islands. This is one side of the international oil business, especially deepwater drilling.

There is also international opposition from all parts of the world where humans care about the environment. Citizens of Alaska have opposed drilling since the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster. From Bolivia, indigenous peoples are calling for all to build the People’s World Movement for Mother Earth. It is from the West Coast of Africa where the supplications for Mother Earth are very loud because the peoples of that region have always been raising fundamental questions about the safety and security of the operations of the oil companies. These companies have unleashed unfathomable damages on the peoples, the environment and the ecosystems of Africa, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brings back the question of oil drilling in the 21st century. This question of environmental destruction is before the world, as the oil giants move to open up more deep water areas for oil exploration and companies prepare to open up deep reserves off the coast of Brazil and Angola.


According to the morality of the capitalist system, incidents such as the current disaster off the coast of Mexico are simply the cost of doing business in the oil industry. In military terms, this is called collateral damage. This military analogy is most apt insofar as the US military acts as a protection agency for the oil companies. It was believed by many that the war against the people of Iraq was a war for oil and the peoples of Africa know that the number one reason for the planned US Africa Command is for the US military to protect the interests of the oil companies. All over the Gulf of Guinea, the US navy has been engaging in actions geared to give the US a new image in Africa, as the US exercises full spectrum dominance.

What is good for capitalism is good for the US military, irrespective of the number of persons killed and wounded. The best measure of a successful capitalist is the posted profits. The companies have been competing with each other since the era of Bush/Cheney to see which company would post the highest profits. In 2008, Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, posted record earnings – second quarter income at Exxon rose 14 percent that year, to US$11.68 billion. According to the New York Times, It was the highest quarterly profit ever for any American company, with Exxon making nearly US$90,000 a minute.

In the first quarter of 2010, British Petroleum posted a profit of US$6.08 billion, up from US$2.56 billion in the first quarter of last year, 2009. The military/business model of the oil companies has been organised around the rush for super profits, irrespective of the ‘collateral damage’ to humans and to nature.

To cover up the criminal activities, there are a number of front organisations that are deployed to divert attention from the destructive activities of the oil companies. One of these front organisations is the American Petroleum Institute (API). With members including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Conoco Philips and others, the institution’s task is to carry out disinformation on the real dangers of the oil companies.

Intellectuals, journalists, politicians, pseudo environmentalists and lawyers have been caught in the net of these companies, so that it is only in obvious disasters such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico where some of the truth is too plain to be distorted. Yet, it is not for lack of trying, because even before the US House of Congress, the BP officials, along with the infamous Haliburton organisation (of Dick Cheney fame) continue to shift the blame for the current disaster.

Disinformation and propaganda by the oil companies have been internalised by politicians who believe that it is necessary to ‘provide incentive’ for offshore drilling to the oil companies. Glossy brochures and extensive linkages with the top business schools reproduce the fiction that humans must depend on oil and gas as the principal energy source for the foreseeable decades. Even with the major breakthroughs in particle physics and in the technology to deliver solar power and wind power, the entire business model of the companies continues to be predicated on an ever-increasing demand for oil. In fact, the disinformation leaders of BP consider themselves so skilled in the art of manipulation that BP has been promoting itself as an environmentally friendly company, advertising that ‘BP’ stands for ‘Beyond Petroleum’.


The collapse of the Copenhagen summit on Global warming (called climate change) has brought to the forefront of human awareness, the reality that the old business model of the oil companies must cease if humans are to survive. In the wake of the ‘oil spill’ in the Gulf of Mexico there have been numerous commentaries in the Anglo-American media about which oil spill has been the biggest human-caused environmental disaster in history. There are now comparisons with the Prince William Sound (Alaska) disaster when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on 24 March 1989. Twenty-one years later the peoples and wildlife of that region are still suffering the effects of that oil spill, when the tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the sea, covering 1,300 square miles (3,366 square kilometers).

Because of the narrowness and myopic nature of US politics, the global and international consequences of disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and Deep Water Horizon rig are not understood in a context where the cumulative crimes are internationalised as questions requiring international cooperation.

Some environmentalists have been listing the number of major oil spills in the ocean since 1940 but one can hardly trust this information because so much of what is presented as facts by journalists about these ‘incidents’ has been compromised by the PR operations of the oil companies. The two worst accidents occurred within weeks of each other in 1979. On 3 June, a well blowout in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche caused a fire and platform collapse. By the time crews were finally able to cap the well nine months later, a total of 140 million gallons of crude had leaked into the water. The supertankers Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain collided off Trinidad and Tobago on 19 July 1979 and 90 million gallons of oil ended up in the Caribbean.

Between 1971 and 2000, the US Coast Guard identified more than 250,000 oil spills in US waters, according to a 2002 report from the US Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service. Approximately 1.7 billion gallons (6.4 billion litres) of oil polluted the earth and seas as a result of tanker incidents from 1970 to 2009. The organisation that collects data on oil spills from tankers and other sources, the Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, does not call the destruction pollution; instead, they list it as oil lost.

Offshore drilling for oil and natural gas near the coasts of the United States was banned by Congress in 1981. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, there was such an outcry by US environmentalists that there was a continued ban on offshore drilling by the US government. In 1990, President George Bush Sr issued executive orders supporting the ban. This ban was rescinded by his son, George W. Bush in 2008. But throughout this ban in the USA, the oil companies were drilling and flaring gas in Africa in ways that exposed the complete contempt for Africans and disregard for the lives of Africans.

Gas flaring in Nigeria stood in a special category because most of these flares have been burning 24 hours a day and some have been doing so for over 40 years. Gas flares, acid rain and pipeline leaks have been so pronounced in Nigeria that international environmentalists from Friends of the Earth have joined with the people of the Niger Delta to prosecute the oil companies so that they can account for the pollution and leaks from Shell’s pipeline into farm lands and fishponds.

Prior to the ruling of the court in The Hague where it was determined that court in the Netherlands had jurisdiction over the activities of Shell in Nigeria; these companies used their vast resources to obstruct collective actions to reverse global warming. These companies are obstacles to the concerted efforts to develop new technologies. They promote writers who argue that global warming is a hoax. These writers, even when they go to Africa produce writings that blame Africans for corruption and filth, instead of the real culprits. The current issue of National Geographic Magazine contains one such article ‘Nigerian Oil: Curse of the Black Gold’ where one would be forgiven if after reading there was the view that the chief cause of instability in Nigeria was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).


The corruption and destruction of the oil companies is felt in Africa in ways that is only now coming to light in the wake of the legal and political challenges to the oil companies. Governments in Africa have been compromised, dictators have been supported and activists have been killed as the Oil companies have acted as a law unto themselves. Whether in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, South Africa or the Sudan, the increased activities of petroleum corporations has led to writers from institutes of strategic studies penning articles on ‘the strategic importance of African oil for the United States.” The pursuit of US energy security in Africa is presented without regard for the lives of the peoples of Africa.

Yet, it is precisely because of the depth of the oppression in Africa that the resistance has been most profound from the peoples of Africa. It was therefore not by accident that the leading force at the Copenhagen summit in December 2009 came from African activists aligned with environmentalists from Latin America and the rest of the world. Lumumba Stanislaus Di Aping emerged as a defender of the rights of all peoples and Desmond Tutu summed up the attitudes of the rich countries when he said that their proposals amounted to a promise to incinerate Africans. From the resistance of the Ogoni peoples in the Niger Delta to the toxic hub of petrochemical pollution in Durban, South Africa, there are new militants raising the question of the criminal actions of the oil companies. It was from the Copenhagen summit that the cry went out that the problem is not climate change, but system change. This realisation was again clearly articulated in the same week of the Gulf of Mexico disaster when the Cochabamba summit in Bolivia came out with a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

There were four broad areas of agreement after this People’s conference in Bolivia. These were, as reported in the press, (a) that those who violate those rights and other international environmental agreements should face legal consequences (a ‘Climate Justice Tribunal’); (b) that poor countries should receive various forms of compensation for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating (‘Climate Debt’); (c) and that there should be a mechanism for people around the world to express their views on these topics (‘World People’s Referendum on Climate Change’) and most importantly (d) that nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a ‘Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights’).

This declaration steers away from the discourse on adaptation and mitigation and those formulations that emanate from the think tanks of the west. Progressive African activists now have a basis to join with the calls to popularise the new struggles for transformation and for a new mode of economic existence. After the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa there were reports after reports that documented how oil corporations in the Niger Delta seriously threaten the livelihood of neighbouring local communities. The very language of these reports served to disempower the peoples of Nigeria, and many were written as if the criminal actions of the oil companies could be changed by moral persuasion and environmental lobbies. It is, however, now becoming clearer that oil spills are not accidents but human made catastrophes that spread pollution, disease and death. Progressives must now begin to go beyond the quantification of the cost of these oil spills in monetary terms.

The Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights provides a new platform for collective action by progressives. The message from this Pan African postcard is that those who support emancipation of peoples must rethink the armed fight as the principal basis of struggle. Armed actions can be supported by progressives when all other forms of legal, political, ideological and diplomatic struggles have been exhausted. The ability of the oil companies to blame militants and ‘thieves’ for the environmental damage is based on their chokehold over the international media. For these reasons, real revolutionaries must rethink kidnapping as a tactic of struggle for transformation. It is now possible to affirm the international lead in the environmental justice struggles and these struggles should not be compromised by kidnappings. The explosion and sinking of an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico in April has created another base for cooperation and coordination among environmental activists in all parts of the world. For every day that thousands of tonnes of oil gush from the ocean floor, activists in all continents must push the opposition to the oil companies so that citizens of the world understand that the best course of action is to leave the oil in the ground and beneath the ocean floor.


* Horace Campbell is a peace activist who is working to realise the dream of the late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem of building African unity by 2015.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.



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