The BP oil spill started so long ago it is hard to remember the details. It began with the explosion and death of 11 employees, followed by a fire and the sinking of the drilling platform. The pictures of the flaming platform and the billowing smoke diverted our attention from the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The early reports down played the spill.
We know the spill is much bigger than the early BP reports when we read about a dead battery in the blow out equipment and one failed containment effort after another. To top that off we had to listen to company CEO’s blame each other in Congressional testimony.
I list some of the failures of BP because I have not heard politicians question capitalism or whether it is best way to explore and drill for oil. Nor have I heard media commentary or anyone in Congress question leasing drilling rights to private companies.
Capitalists complain government is wasteful, inefficient and bureaucratic when private firms have the incentive to minimize costs to compete with other firms. Minimizing costs also means ignoring the environmental safety precautions that Congress and the public wants in the leases, and also working to reduce enforcement.
Oil leases are usually discussed as an example of capitalism, but the continental shelf is the public domain as much as the Washington Monument and Yellowstone Park. Capitalism requires private ownership with transactions exclusively between private parties, not the government. When the government contracts with firms in the construction industry to build roads or drill oil, the buyer side of the transaction is the government.
Leasing the drilling rights on the continental shelf is just one way to recover the oil if Congress and the country decide to take the risk of a spill. Another way is to form a public corporation like Conrail, Amtrak, the Tennessee Valley Authority or the St. Lawrence Seaway.
When the Federal government promoted and paid for the St. Lawrence Seaway many years ago it siphoned off much of the bulk traffic from the New York Central and Pennsylvania railways. They ended up bankrupt and Congress decided to form Conrail out of the bankruptcy. Congress subsidized a public project that bankrupted private firms.
When the Federal government contracted with IBM to develop the B-52 computer guidance system in the 1950’s, the subsidy from Congress helped them develop the first main frame computers that accelerated the development of computer technologies. Congress subsidized a project that benefited a private company but it also accelerated the development of computer technology, which we all benefit from now.
There are many examples of government and business partnerships, which are neither capitalism nor socialism. Some work and some don’t, but that is why the labels of capitalism and socialism are only relevant to politics.
The oil industry wants to exploit the continental shelf because it is profitable so they call it by the politically correct term, capitalism, when it is not. The oil spill tells us the government does a poor job regulating and the oil industry does a poor job drilling. Maybe it is time to combine the regulations with the drilling and have the government do it all. That way we would know who to blame and be able to hold them accountable.