< class="art-postheader">Big Oil’s Dirty Secrets–And Why You Should Care

If we woke up tomorrow and there was suddenly no more oil, the only nation in the world that would continue to run smoothly would be Brazil. Why?  Because they’ve long since converted to ethanol. Even though there are serious problems associated with using a potential food source as fuel, Brazil has at least proven there are other options. And now, the poverty-stricken nation of Mexico is rolling out a solar-power program. The bottom line is, we’re only stuck with oil as long as we choose to be stuck with oil. It’s time to stand up against Big Oil and remove their influence from our government, remove their toxins from our neighborhoods, and move toward a cleaner future.

But Oil Works. Why Change?

National Security

First of all, the inexpensive sources of oil (pockets close to the surface) are tapped out–except for those in the Middle East. As domestic oil becomes harder and more dangerous for us to retrieve (Deepwater Horizon, anyone?), we become increasingly dependent on countries with whom we already have tenuous relationships. More than 50% of the world’s remaining oil is under the soil of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Our dependence on foreign oil is a very real national security threat.

In late 2007, Alan Greenspan said he believed the war in Iraq was entirely about oil. [1. Graham Paterson, “Alan Greenspan Claims Iraq War Was Really for Oil,” Sunday Times, September 16, 2007.] Additionally, President Bush himself said: “If we do not defeat the terrorists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves.” [2. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/10/25/bush.transcript]

What Big Oil would prefer you didn’t know is that George W. Bush received more financial support from the oil industry than any other candidate for federal office in history. [3. Antonia Juhasz, The Tyranny of Oil, p. 210.] The oil and gas industry has donated over $209 million to federal election campaigns since 1990, and from 1998-2006, Big Oil spent over $164 million lobbying the federal government. [4. Juhasz, p. 220] The amount of influence the oil and gas industry has over our nation’s leaders is substantial, and many have even argued that Big Oil essentially bought a war to obtain supply for their sales chain.

Rising Prices, Undue Influence

While it might seem like a diminishing supply would translate to higher prices, that’s only part of the story. In 2008, when oil prices spiked to over $100 a barrel, there was no shortage of oil. In fact, crude oil supplies in the United States actually increased over the last eight years. . . but the amount of gasoline actually decreased. According to Antonia Juhasz, author of The Tyranny of Oil, “More oil is available in the United States, but less of it is being refined into gasoline. The oil companies appear to be creating an “artificial scarcity,” which is illegal under anti-trust law. [5. p. 178]

While law suits have been filed, the sheer size and resources of Big Oil, combined with the industry’s government influence, make wins rare. Michael Spiegel, an anti-trust lawyer who has prosecuted the U.S. Petroleum industry for collusive price fixing, said of the government’s legal team: “The oil industry just ran these guys ragged until the government was forced to drop the case. It was a disgrace that the industry could do that to the government. But an industry with unlimited funds can just run a case into the ground.” [6. Juhasz, p. 100]

An industry that is powerful enough to out-spend government attempts to impose the rule of law threatens the very foundations of our democracy.

Health Risks from Benzene

While Big Oil would like you to think oil is “natural” and therefore safe, the reality is that oil is toxic to human life. Oil contains a substance called benzene, which is designated as a Class A Carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means the EPA conclusively knows that benzene in oil, gasoline, and car exhaust fumes causes cancer.Furthermore, new research about benzene shows that even very low levels of benzene are highly toxic. [7. Available online athttp://lonestar.sierraclub.org/air/NewUnderstandingsofBenzeneMetabolismandImplicationsforRiskAssessments.pdf/air/NewUnderstandingsofBenzeneMetabolismandImplicationsforRiskAssessments.pdf

Benzene is so toxic that if you filled up one measuring cup and let it evaporate into a crowd in a football stadium, ambient air levels would still be 3.3 times higher than the OSHA safe-air standard, and 6.6 times the NIOSH safe-air standard. Benzene makes up 1% of crude oil and accounts for up to 5% of gasoline vapors, which means you can also poison everybody who is sitting in a football field with only six gallons of unsealed crude oil, or one and a half gallons of an uncorked bottle of gasoline. And yet, Corpus Christi, the U.S. City with more oil refineries than any other city except for Los Angeles, dumped seventy tons of benzene in 2007 alone. [8. Available online at http://texas.sierraclub.org/air/PrelimCritiqueFlintHills.pdf ] Therefore, it should come as no surprise that data from the Texas Department of State Health Services reveals a birth defects rate in Corpus Christi that is 84% higher than the rest of the country.

But oil refineries are a major source of excess benzene emissions not only in Texas, but also across the country. In 1995, the EPA reported that anyone who lives within a 30 mile radius of an oil refinery is being exposed to benzene concentrations in excess of The Clean Air Act’s acceptable risk threshhold. [9. Juhasz, p 187]. Unfortunately, nearly one in three Americans live within a 30 mile radius of at least one oil refinery. [10. id.]  There are 149 oil refineries in 33 states. [11. id.]

Even if you don’t live near an oil refinery, you’re still not in the clear. According to Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain, “On a normal day, the pollution produced by refineries pales next to what comes out of cars and trucks. In some parts of the LA Basin, the ‘estimated lifetime cancer risks’ from air pollution are one thousand times the amount the federal Clean Air Act permits.” [12. p. 60] And according to Juhasz, “in 1996 the estimated risk of  aperson getting cancer in California as a result of lifetime exposure to outdoor air pollutants was 310 times higher than the federal Clean Air Act goals. [13. p. 196]

The U.S. Government Cannot Effectively Regulate the Oil Industry

Which brings us to the fact that the government cannot effectively regulate the oil industry. As previously mentioned, the oil industry is one of the nation’s top political contributors, which makes objectivity in D.C. on this issue a rare find indeed. While acts such as the federal Clean Air Act are in place, they clearly are not effective at reducing exposure to toxins.

One reason for this problem lies in the fact that there are many exceptions to the act that were grandfathered in when it was originally passed in the 1970s. For example, one exception exempts refineries that existed prior to the Act from regulation. Unfortunately, since the act was passed, only one new refinery has been built, which means the Clean Air Act is a piece of legislation that has no teeth.

Furthermore, the BP Gulf Coast Disaster made it abundantly clear that in the event of an oil-related disaster, the government is virtually powerless–they are at the mercy of the Big Oil C.E.O.s.  And if the government is powerless, how much more so are individual citizens? While the remedy against personal injuries and deaths caused by Big Oil lies in our judicial system, it is unreasonable to think that a single person can remedy their situation with a law suit when, as we’ve already seen, the industry can easily out-spend suits brought by the federal government.

The Effects of Toxic Oil Spills

Remember, crude oil contains 1% benzene, which we know for a fact causes cancer. The health effects of spills have gone under-reported, and many suspect that Big Oil has gone out of its way to suggest that because oil is natural, there are no adverse health-effects of a spill at all.

While spills may seem like rare events, the truth is that trucks and boats spill more oil every year in inland waters than the Exxon Valdez. [13. Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain. p45, referencing a 2002 report by the National Academy of Science.] Because inland waters flow through populated communities and supply us with drinking water, and because benzene is toxic whether it is ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, avoiding exposure is nearly impossible.

During the BP Gulf Oil Disaster, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported that clean-up workers were becoming ill. While BP blamed a possible outbreak of food poisoning, Dr. Gupta expressed doubts that the widespread instances of illness were caused by food, since his personal eye-witness testimony revealed that the symptoms were mainly respiratory. While BP provided clean-up workers with protective plastic suits and gloves, they did not provide the workers with any respiratory protection. Dr. Gupta suggested that BP did not provide respiratory protection because they did not want to create the public perception that oil is toxic.


My name is Diane Castle, and I invite you to join with me in the fight against Big Oil. Stay informed by keeping abreast of developments on this blog.

Find out more about the legal thriller, Black Oil, Red Blood here. A portion of the proceeds benefits Gulf People Helping People. Read for fun and help out a good cause.