Big Oil's Relentless Assault on Democracy

08/03/2010 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The BP catastrophe in the Gulf has devastated one of the world's most prolific ecosystems. The audacity of greed that fueled BP into drilling a well 50 miles out in the ocean and one mile deep is the direct result of the weakening of the regulations and safeguards that could have avoided the disaster.

For decades, the pernicious influence not just of BP but of all Big Oil companies has profoundly undermined the only entity that can protect us all against corporate greed - the federal government.

When the public started realizing that BP didn't have the faintest idea how to contain the runaway well that was gushing tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day, we all wondered, why isn't the federal government doing more? Why isn't it taking over BP?

Suddenly, after decades of hearing that the government was the problem, we all turned to it seeking solutions. But the federal government entered the stage of this drama limping and soon showed its inability to deal with it. The entire country had no choice but relying on the same inept oil company, BP, that caused the catastrophe to solve it.

This weakening reached its high point during the administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney, two experienced oilmen. And Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force became the main engine of this destruction.

The exclusive task force consisted of BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and others from Big Oil, and it produced one of the most catastrophic energy policies in the history of the country. Its main result was the 2005 Energy Policy Law, which gave the industry, among others, the following gifts:

*The elimination of regulations and safeguards, including key parts of the Clean Water Act, which the industry called "onerous."

*The expansion of drilling on the country's coasts and other protected areas, including parts bordering national parks and other sensitive public lands.

*$14.5 billion in tax cuts and incentives for an industry that was already rolling in cash.

But perhaps the most toxic legacy of the White House Oilmen was the deeply corrupted Mineral Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department's division in charge of regulating the oil industry.

The agency's nepotism and cronyism at all levels became legendary. In 2008, a federal investigation found that the regulators were literally in bed with the regulated, sharing drugs and alcohol as part of "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity," where public officials accepted gifts "with prodigious frequency."

In an email, an MMS employee wrote to a Shell executive the following: "You are soooo wonderful. You know how much I adore you."

Money has this amazing power to tear down doors and wipe out consciences. And Big Oil has so much money, it's no longer called money, it's called power. Between 2001 and 2007, with the White House and a good part of Congress in their back pockets, the top five oil companies made $556 billion in profits, a 300-percent increase from 2000.

Between 2001 and 2008, these industries invested close to $450 million lobbying Congress, and since January of 2009 until April of this year, $215 million, mainly to obstruct the passage of the Energy Bill, which has been stuck in the Senate for 13 months and counting.

Big Oil also knows very well how to place their most loyal public officials in the federal bureaucracy and how to reward them. Two former directors and several other MMS employees are now working for this industry. Seventy-one percent of the more than 600 Big Oil lobbyists in Washington are former federal or congressional employees.

The public, defenseless against the effects of this very powerful incestuous relationship, paid the consequences. Reckoning day came on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon platform blew up, killing 11 workers and causing the worst ecological calamity in the country's history.

Now, more than ever, is when we need the courage of our representatives in Washington. It's time to end our oil addiction, to pass an energy bill that, thanks to sources of clean, renewable energy, will allow us to move beyond oil in 20 years.

It's time to end Big Oil's relentless assault on democracy.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.