The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the greatest environmental disaster our nation has ever faced—virtually no one is willing to debate that at this point. From the fishermen and business owners whose livelihoods have been negatively affected by the spill to the president himself, the American people are interested in holding British Petroleum (BP) and other contractors accountable for the myriad alleged violations that resulted in the spill. Since April 20th, affected families have sought remedy to this crisis through litigation, documentation, and protests—all with the hope of recovery.
This reaction to such a catastrophe is not new, however. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, demonstrators protested the spill, and have continued to elevate the long-term effects of its legacy. This unrest, coupled with the civil and criminal probes (similar to the one “>Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Tuesday from New Orleans), resulted in Exxon paying more than $1 billion in penalties and compensatory damages, which included $125 million in criminal penalties, the largest sum fined to date. With OSHA statistics reporting BP as responsible for more than 760 “egregious, willful” safety violations in the last 5 years -compared to eight by Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips, two by Citgo, and one by Exxon—the degree of BP’s negligence is clear.
Today, advocates are calling for a worldwide boycott of BP until the oil spill is cleaned up and until affected individuals, families, and communities receive compensation for the harm caused by the spill. In fact, the Facebook page, “Boycott BP” has more than 270,000 fans. However, while this call to action is admirable, a boycott of BP may not yield the full results for which advocates are searching. Boycotts are typically used to demonstrate consumer dissatisfaction with a corporation and to demonstrate a collective disagreement with a power structure or decision-making body. They are a symbolic gesture that has, in theory, caused enough of an economic dent to change behaviors, policies, or practices.
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In the gulf, BP is in crisis control mode. Without an effective remedy, oil is now estimated to continue spewing into the Gulf until August. While there are a series of protections that need to be put in place, and a host of restitution owed to residents who have suffered dearly from this greed and avoidance of environmental protection laws, the truth is that even if the nation of advocates and concerned citizens vowed not to purchase another drop of BP oil, the company wouldn’t crumble to its knees because of its other sources of income. Oil is but one of the many products offered by the world’s fourth largest company.
One may decide to pass by that BP gas station in favor of another provider, but the truth is that by doing so, the entity taking the hit is the local gas station owner, not British Petroleum. One could vow not to patronize another BP gas station for a year, but that same consumer may be driving on BP asphalt, flying in airplanes lubricated with BP products, drinking bottled water made with BP aromatics, or eating vinegar made with BP acetyls. The bottom line is that a real boycott of BP is harder than you think.
Still, a significant outcry can affect the company’s market value—in six weeks, the firm’s market value has dropped by 40 percent, a loss of $74.4 billion. Additionally, an organized boycott of BP gas also provides a platform to elevate the injustice that has occurred—and continues to occur—in the Gulf of Mexico.
This is an opportunity to strengthen laws that protect individuals and the environment against egregious actions by corporations, and to ensure that compensation for damages are awarded to those whose health and wealth have been harmed by the oil that is now uncontrollably gushing into the gulf. This is also a chance to push for a public discussion about environmental and economic justice and use this as a rally cry for the development of standards that protect communities—including the environment—from abusive practices that can lead to the disaster we are now witnessing.
Our challenge is to think prevention, intervention, and compensation. British Petroleum, as well as its partners, should accept responsibility for the harm they have caused and do everything in their power to remedy the situation. We should all seize this moment to call for corrective action that can keep a collective eye of scrutiny on the corporation until justice is served.