Tag Archives: Bhopol

Why fossil fuel corporations killed us

Sometimes, when I look at the things the Republicans and their leader, Donald Trump, are doing, I think of that poignant line in so many actual and fictional moments: “You have killed me.”

Someone says that because the killing is done, but they are not yet dead. The knife is driven deep, the car is heading for the cliff, the contract killer is closing in. Then the person dies, but not before they get to say, “You killed me.”

Today, I look at Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, Rex Tillerson, the petroleum industry, the Heartland institute. They didn’t kill me, but they have killed my daughter, and they have killed my son.

And I wonder, why the hell did they do that?

Wondering leads to thoughts, and thoughts lead to blog commentary, so this:

ExxonMobil, to take one example, made a very significant mistake and essentially killed themselves as a corporation. They did this by choosing to not shift their corporate activities to follow, if not actually lead, in the energy transition that is absolutely required if our global civilization is expected to survive into the future, decades hence. ExxonMobil and the other petroleum corporations can not exist 100 years from now, though they could have made decisions over recent decades to ensure that they do.

I’m reminded of my deceased mentor’s comments (before he ceased) on patrilines. Irv Devore, when discussing patriliniality and kinship systems, would note that patrilines and corporations, unlike people, are expected to exist for all eternity, or at least, up until the day they stop existing. Once you grasp that idea, it is possible to understand why either does what they do. An elder man in a patrilineal kinship-based society will go to great lengths to preserve the patriline. The very strong often heinous preference for male over female children is part of this. Since only sons carry on the patriline, too many daughters are a threat. Infanticide of daughters is therefore significantly more common than infanticide of sons. And so on.

(Hell. My writing is interrupted by an Amber Alert. An ex-boyfriend stabbed the mother of his son, took off with the son. A male associate assisted. Long life the patriarchy. Fuck the patriarchy.


But I ever so slightly digress…)

This should mean that decisions by corporations are made with very long term consequences in mind. When ExxonMobil and the other Big Oil corporations realized, in the 1980s, that continued use of fossil fuel would eventually a) be curtailed by regulation and/or b) cause the end of civilization and thus corporations, they should have started on plans to change what they do. A big energy company could have developed non-fossil fuel burnable materials, they could have muscled their way into the electricity industry, figuring that electric motors, already the preferred means of running a lot of machines that could have been run with IC engines, were part of the future. They could have done a lot of things to usher in a new age of reduced fossil fuel use and expanded use of other energy sources.

But no. They didn’t. Instead, they’ve killed us.

They, the big energy companies, the corporate sycophant-parasites known as Republicans, and their allies and puppets like the Heartland Institute and others chose to kill us all rather than do the right thing.

So why would someone like Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of a major oil company, make decisions like this?

A lot of you will say: they do it for the short term profits, for the quarterly earnings report, because the corporation is beholden to the stockholder, etc. etc.

I do not disagree with any of that, all of that is true. But, there is another element that I think needs to be considered.

Even though all those reasons are true, there is something else that should be going on, and that in fact HAPPENS ALL THE TIME in other corporations. Not all corporations fail to consider the long term. Leaders of many corporations make decisions that positively affect the long term. They recognize that short term reduction in earnings can have long term positive effects on earnings. They choose sensible investment in the future, in all the future quarterly earnings.

But in some industries, I suggest, this is much less likely because of the interplay between risk and compensation.

If you run a company that makes shirts, nothing is going to happen in your corporation that causes the entire world to suddenly focus on you as the person in charge of a deadly disaster. Well, OK, in the past that did happen for shirt companies now and then, but not any longer. But if you run a company with offshore rigs, chemical factories, refineries, giant ships full of oil, a fleet of passenger carriers, and so on, then there is a risk of a sudden and singular disaster that will attract everyone’s attention, cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and that may become truly notorious. Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Deep Water Horizon. Unforgettable disasters.

(I think we actually do forget about some of the disasters, if they are in a category with frequent events over decadal times scales. So, even if you don’t remember Tenerife, you know that plane crashes are bad.)

If you are a Rex Tillerson in charge of an ExxonMobil, or the CEO of any of these high risk corporations, there is a distinct possibility that you will wake up one morning to the news that a chemical leak in one of your factories just killed thousands of townspeople, with thousands more to have permanent debilitating injuries. You might be informed, just before picking up your bonus check, that one of your ships ran ashore and dumped 41 thousand cubic meters of crude oil on a formerly pristine natural coastline. You might get the news just before going to bet that one of your off shore rigs has exploded and is burning, eleven dead, three months of oil blowing into the sea, the worst environmental disaster ever, and on your watch. Or perhaps you’ll learn that one of your aircraft just colided with another at an obscure airport in the Canary Islands, and nearly 600 died in the fiery crash.

Most of us would be able to live for years off of a single year’s salary of any of the top CEOs in the oil industry. And, by years, I mean hundreds of years. But from the CEO’s point of view, the relevant balance is between getting a huge salary and bonus this year, allowing one to never have to work a day again, to cover high end living expenses for the whole family and their offspring, vs. the long term health of a corporation that might fire you at any day if something really terrible goes wrong.

Why would a corporate executive choose to stop earning an income forever? Well, if your company kills a few thousand people or destroys a major habitat under your watch, you might not be working for a while.*

The bottom line: In an industry that can spit out major career ending disasters, the foresight of corporate leaders becomes myopic, and long term prospects become invisible, much more easily than in most corporations. This strongly biases the already myopic focus on short term earnings reports. The result: corporate, or any, sustainability goes out the window.

It is ironic that the biggest petroleum related disaster ever was the sinking of a rig named Deepwater Horizon. There is nothing deep about the time horizon considered by Big Oil. Yes, that is because of the quarterly report fetish, but the mitigation of short term thinking is obviated by the grotesquely imbalanced comparison of likely disaster vs. outlandish salary and bonuses.

FYI: The top paid oil company execs get between 15 and 150 a year in salary, and between 4 and 10 extra in bonuses.


*Note: People in charge of major corporations when there is a major disaster don’t necessarily lose their jobs or become unhirable. But it does affect them. Lawrence Rawl was in charge of Exxon when the Exxon Valdez crashed into Alaska, and he was criticized for badly handling the response. He kept his job for four more years and retired, and I don’t know if he got very many more bonuses. But, he is officially “known for the Exxon Valdez spill.” That is his legacy. Warren Anderson was in charge of Union Carbide when Bhopal happened. He was charged with manslaughter. He remains a fugitive. Other higher ups in the Indian part of that company were tried and convicted of various charges. Tony Hayward, CEO of BE at the time of Deepwater Horizon, was not fired but then was replaced, and that disaster and his handling of it has left him a very controversial figure. He is dogged by protestors and companies and institutions that have anything to do with him find themselves shunned. So, no, this is not a simple formula: I will be fired if there is a disaster. But there are consequences, and I suspect, a perception of fear of consequences is very real.

Examples of “You killed me”: