The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5



In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court split Standard Oil into 34 different companies because it was huge, monopolistic and beyond control. Today, Standard's largest offspring, Exxon, is also out of control. The oil from the Exxon Valdez is a graphic reminder of corporate negligence and indifference. The spill and Exxon's defensive reaction to it, have already galvanized opposition to the unfettered corporate power legitimated by the deregulation of the Reagan years.

Unfortunately, many corporations are indifferent to environmental issues. And free market principles do not encourage companies to be environmentally responsible. Exxon will write-off the cleanup expenses and may even profit from the increased gasoline prices which followed the spill. There is no economic incentive to encourage responsibility. Safe transport ships, adequate cleanup procedures and equipment and the development of alternative energy sources all require a long- term investment. The fact that such investments detract from immediate profits make them anathema to the oil industry.

Exxon's avarice prevented it from having the proper equipment to contain such a large oil spill. In an ironic twist, Exxon now claims it must violate state and federal environmental laws to dispose of the oil it has recovered. Moreover, Exxon wants to allow nature to clean "moderately" fouled coastline so that it can concentrate on the heavily impacted areas. Exxon's plan is crazy.

Exxon must change if another Valdez is to be avoided. The movement to boycott Exxon stations and products is one means of keeping the spotlight on the shameless behavior of this corporate behemoth. The boycott has already pierced the smug indifference pervading the executive suites at Exxon by aiming at the bottom line. The government should follow this lead.

The Bush administration's lackadaisical approach to a criminal investigation, however, reveals an allegiance to the oil industry. Such inaction reinforces the notion that Exxon is above the law and immune from prosecution. The FBI should have seized all of Exxon's and Alyeska's records pertaining to shipping in Alaska and spills. The Justice Department still has time to act and should move immediately to preserve evidence for future litigation.

In addition, new penalties for corporate crime should be developed, and existing laws enforced rigorously. Until such actions are taken, companies will continue to disregard the environment.

The oil industry has played too big a role in shaping energy policy. President Bush adheres to a misguided notion of corporate responsibility which allows the oil industry to set priorities for energy research and development. For example, Bush, like his predecessor, has failed to break with the automotive and oil industry and set automotive fuel efficiency standards which would require an average fuel efficiency of 27.5 m.p.g. for new cars. Increasing these standards would obviate the need for Alaskan petroleum.

The final decision on whether to let Alyeska exploit the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve will be a watershed in the fight to exert control over the oil industry. The argument that it must be tapped if the United States is to retain energy independence is specious. President Bush should support an energy program that promotes conservation and uses alternative energy sources and new technologies which truly would break U.S. reliance on foreign fuel and slavish devotion to the dictates of "Big Oil."

Exxon's defiant posture reveals a systemic disregard for the public interest. Perhaps that is why Exxon has spent a lot of money and energy on public relations. Exxon's chairman, L.G. Rawl, says he doesn't understand what all of the fuss is about. He blames God for the accident and the Coast Guard for the botched cleanup; he has spread the blame as far as the slick is wide. Rawl disingenuously expresses surprise that no one trusts his company. The reality is that Exxon is not worried about the people of Alaska or the consumer; it's just afraid that the Valdez will hamper further exploitation of Alaska. Exxon's arrogance, like the oil spill, knows no bounds.

The Exxon boycott should signal the first round in a persistent and determined effort to reassert control over an arrogant industry. Consumers and environmentalists are beginning to demand a clean environment by involving themselves at the local level in policy debates and organizing. To limit the potential for another Valdez, the grassroots movement must spark renewed government activity in regulating the oil industry and in formulating a rational energy policy. The public, in this case, is leading the way. Get in on the act. Get involved. Start by boycotting Exxon products and cutting up your Exxon credit card. Let Exxon know that you're fed up and you're not going to take it anymore.

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