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BP Funnels Millions into Lobbying to Influence Regulation and Rebrand Image

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We speak with Antonia Juhasz, author of The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry – And What We Must Do To Stop It. “The entire oil industry, will continue to use its vast wealth — unequaled by any global industry — to escape regulation, restriction, oversight and enforcement,” Juhasz writes. “BP, now the source of the last two great deadly US oil industry explosions, has shown us that this simply cannot be permitted.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined from San Francisco by Antonia Juhasz, the author of The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — And What We Must Do to Stop It. She’s director of the Chevron Program at Global Exchange. She’s been looking at the millions of dollars BP spends on lobbying.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Antonia Juhasz. You write in The Observer that the explosion of BP/Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is “neither surprising nor unexpected.” Why?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Well, for a lot of the reasons that Tyson has cited. This company, in particular, has an egregious record of cost cutting. The finding that Tyson had referenced to the 2005 Texas City explosion, the US Chemical Safety Board found basically a long history of egregious mismanagement, egregious cost cutting, and an egregious rejection to the concept of security. BP, while it was experiencing its highest profits in its own history in '99 and 2005, cut spending 25 percent across all of its US refineries. It operates five. And the Chemical Safety Board found this cost cutting and a lack of attention to security as the cause of that tragic explosion in 2005. That explosion was, at its time, the largest workplace accident in the United States in fifteen years. Now — that was fifteen workers died. Now we have eleven workers presumed dead. But certainly the magnitude of this explosion is certainly going to top that 2005 explosion, and it's the same company.

But I think, beyond the lack of surprise that — unfortunately, that the next great major US oil industry incident involved BP was the lack of surprise, unfortunately, that it took place in the US Gulf of Mexico and involved offshore drilling, and that it involved this industry. Essentially, we have the largest, wealthiest industry in the world. In 2009, for the first time, seven of the ten largest corporations on the planet were oil companies. They have used their wealth, including BP, to lobby aggressively, spend on campaigns aggressively, push the boundaries of what’s technologically feasible to get oil, and to use their money to gain access to places I think they shouldn’t even be, and to reduce the regulatory oversight over those operations. So we have them simultaneously working in places they shouldn’t be working, under less regulatory oversight than should be in place, and that has everything to do with the money available to this industry, which isn’t available to others.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia Juhasz, talk about the lobbying money that is being spent by BP in Washington.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: BP spent $16.5 million lobbying last year. That made it among the top twenty lobbyists in the United States. That was six-and-a-half million dollars more than it spent in 2008, which was its previous record. It is following the trend of the oil industry as a whole, which has significantly increased its lobbying, essentially since the Obama administration came in, or since the Democrats took over the House and Senate.

Under the Bush administration, you essentially had an oil government, an industry that was filled with oil industry executives, lawyers, lobbyists, people on their way in and out of the administration to the oil industry. And essentially the industry was able to legislate and not lobby, which they did for eight years under Bush.

When the Democrats and Obama then took over, the industry was forced to revert to the more standard method of lobbying to get what it wants. And while this administration is most certainly not an oil administration, it is far from immune to the just massive, massive dollars that are being poured in to lobbying by this industry. And I think we evidenced that most directly when Obama continued the process that Bush began of opening up our offshore waters to more drilling. Thank goodness Obama has pulled back on that and said we’re going to wait and see to the cause of this accident. But this industry spends really enormous, unprecedented amounts of money on lobbying.

But that now may yet pale — when we look at how much, for example, BP spent on campaigns in 2008, a mere $500,000 sounds like nothing compared to its lobbying. Well, now with Citizens United, those relatively small campaign investments, relative to lobbying investments, now of course can equal the lobbying investments. And so, this is a critical moment, as Citizens United takes effect. And while we think we’ve seen the power of this industry to influence public policy, we have no idea what it’s going to be like now that they can open the floodgates. I mean, literally, this is an industry that has too much cash. It does not know what to do with its cash on hand. That’s one of the reasons why it spends $1,000,000 a day drilling for oil in places where, you know, only two out of ten of the holes they drill even yield oil. They have enough wealth to push and get as much oil as they can. Once that money starts going into campaigns, you know, we’re really at a critical juncture where we have to rein in the industry immediately before that flood of cash hits our — really hits our political spectrum.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia Juhasz, I asked you about specifically the money that BP spends on lobbying, but overall, how much it is spending on its PR campaign, the whole rebranding of BP from British Petroleum to, what, Beyond Petroleum, its whole — what many call greenwashing?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yes, most certainly, greenwashing. That switch to Beyond Petroleum, I believe, took place in 2005, and it truly is simply a PR greenwash. At very best, using very generous estimates on my part, I found that BP spent, at best, four percent of its total capital and exploratory budget on anything remotely resembling green alternative energy. Now, four percent is real money when you look at BP’s budget, but it hardly qualifies the company to be Beyond Petroleum, when everything else that it’s doing is in the petroleum sector and the most aggressive modes of production, whether it’s the tar sands, offshore, you know, really breaking the boundaries of the damages that can be caused from oil production.

And that four percent, by the way, was a high point. BP has since cut its alternative energy investments significantly. It even closed its alternative energy headquarters in London. It’s really pulling itself back in, like the rest of the oil industry is, to move more aggressively into oil, the place where they can ultimately make the most money. And again, you know, oil, of course, reached a high of $150 a barrel, fell significantly down, but it’s on its way back up. So the company I pay the closest attention to, for example, Chevron, like most of the industry, its profits fell significantly last year as the price of a barrel of oil fell. Well, this first quarter of 2010, Chevron doubled its profits from the first quarter of 2009. I imagine BP is in the same circumstance. They’re on the way — they’re on their way back up, but they’re doing that by really focusing in on oil, not on alternative energy. So it is pure greenwashing to think of this company as anything other than an oil company and to think of it as anything other than a dirty oil company.

AMY GOODMAN: A 2007 customer survey found that BP, by far, had the most environmentally friendly image of any major oil company. That year, the Beyond Petroleum campaign also won the gold award from the American Marketing Association, Antonia Juhasz.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: They do a great job of marketing. They spend a lot of money on marketing. And to be fair, that public perception is right. Of all the oil companies, BP spends the most on alternative energy, or at least has over the past couple years. That four percent, sadly, was the best. Most of the other companies spent three percent, two percent, zero in the case of Exxon until very recently. So, you know, at four percent, this was the best company. That four percent is pennies. It’s pure greenwashing. The problem is that the public is increasingly perceiving this greenwashing as a real marker, a hallmark on where they think the industry is going. And it’s logical to think that if oil is running out and you’re an oil company, it makes sense that you would try and stay in business by moving into alternative energy. That just simply is not the case for any industry — or any company.

And the reason why they want us to think that they are green companies isn’t actually so that we’ll keep purchasing their gasoline. The real reason is so that we will think of them in warm and fuzzy ways and not think of them as companies that need desperately to have a heavy hand of regulation. They want to keep us from pressuring our elected officials, from saying, “We won’t vote for you, we won’t support you, we won’t do the things you need to do to stay in office, unless you take a heavy-handed regulatory approach to this industry.” If we think of them in warm, fuzzy ways and that they are about solar and wind, then we’re less likely, in all the issues that we’re all so concerned about all the time, to focus in on this industry and say it must be regulated, it is not to be trusted. And hopefully, the positive side of this horrific tragedy will be that the public will see that this is simply an industry not to be trusted. It must, instead, be regulated.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Tyson Slocum, the issue of President Obama’s policy that President Bush did not succeed in doing, opening the coast to offshore drilling, the announcement coming just before this explosion in the Gulf Coast, and what this means?

TYSON SLOCUM: Well, Public Citizen, along with a lot of other groups, were sharply critical last month when President Obama announced that he was going to lift the moratorium and open up new areas on the eastern United States and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to new drilling. That was a ban that was put in place by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. And we warned that this would have environmental consequences. And I think one result of this tragedy in the Gulf is that plans to open up new drilling on the East Coast of the United States is dead on arrival. There is no way that Republicans or Democrats, in pristine coastal areas like the Carolinas, are going to support offshore drilling when they see the devastation that’s going to be occurring and already is occurring on the Gulf.

And it really underscores the fallacy that we can “drill, baby, drill” our way to energy independence or “drill, baby, drill” our way off of foreign oil. The fact is is that this shows that domestic oil production poses significant economic harm, significant problems with the ecosystem and workplace safety, that if we really want to become energy independent and sustainable, we’ve got to get off fossil fuels, period. We just had that mining accident with Massey Energy in West Virginia, and that’s one of a series of deaths that’s occured. Our continued dependence on coal and oil presents too many harms to workers, too many harms to the climate and to our local ecosystems, and this should be a wake-up call that our dependence on these fossil fuels is just more harm than good, and we’ve got to make that transition to cleaner, renewable, sustainable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson Slocum, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Also, Antonia Juhasz, thank you, as well, author of The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — And What We Must Do to Stop It. She’s director of the Chevron Program at Global Exchange. And thank you very much to Attorney Bickford, joining us from New Orleans, who has brought suit on behalf of Shane Roshto, who died in the explosion.

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