Spill waters run deep

Oil stopped flowing from the Deepwater Horizon rig in July, but the legal wrangling is only just beg

As the self-professed "Son of the Gulf", Robert Dudley, takes over from BP's vilified chief executive, Tony Hayward, the British oil giant is shifting gear. The focus now is on "making whole" the communities of the Gulf. But phase two brings a new threat: BP's legal might.

For residents of the Gulf, the takeover is the end of the beginning: the leak has been plugged and the angry tide of public opinion, which swelled with the tally of leaked oil, has begun to subside. But uncertainty continues to hang over the region. For the Gulf Coast residents, who know only too well the difficulty of rebuilding post-disaster, a new kind of pain is being felt.

“It's way worse than Katrina," Lorrie Grimaldi of St Bernard, Louisiana, told me, as she cracked open a crab with the dexterity of a fisherman's wife. "Katrina took everything we owned. But this? We still don't know what it's going to take."

As we spoke, Lorrie passed me small pieces of freshly cooked crab. "I promise it ain't got no oil in it," she jokes. "Actually, I can't promise that."

Blame acts as a catalyst for the added stress associated with man-made disasters, explains Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of South Alabama. But where to lay the blame when responsibility is being constantly deflected by layers of complex litigation and obscured by claims funds?

Picou studied the impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill on mental health and found that, for Alaskans involved in the ensuing litigation, stress levels were as high in 2009 as they were in 1991. Exxon led the small communities of Prince William Sound in a tightly choreographed legal dance that ended in 2008 with the oil titan paying $507m of a $5bn damage settlement, and $25m of a fine that was first pegged at $150m. Nineteen years after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, some plaintiffs received their final payment.

For those in the Gulf, today's race to the courthouse has begun. Alabama was the first state to sue BP and its reluctant coterie of fellow defendants. The state's attorney general, Troy King, sidestepped accusations that his suit was premature, saying that BP had begun gathering witnesses and planning its defence on 20 April, the day of the explosion. Louisiana followed, filing a suit to have Transocean declared responsible for some of the 200 million gallons of oil that leaked into the Gulf.

Courting controversy

An estimated 400 cases have already been filed and the pre-trial proceedings have been consolidated to two courts: Houston for securities law cases and Louisiana for the rest. BP fought hard to merge the two multi-district litigation (MDL) hearings, and for it all to be heard in the oil-friendly court of Houston. But the MDL panel pointed out that while both actions share "an underlying genesis" - the causes and consequences of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig - consolidating the two would only serve BP's ends by muddling its liability with that of other actors.

The US district judge Carl Barbier, who was appointed in August to oversee the MDL in Louisiana, has taken steps to move the case forward in an attempt to avoid an Exxon-style protracted battle. He has set aside October and November 2011 for the first major trial, which will determine how liability is apportioned. At the first hearing in New Orleans on 16 September, Barbier warned that the case was not going "to be settled easily or quickly".

The litigants have several obstacles to overcome before the first case can even be heard. Transocean is already in court seeking to limit its liability under the archaic Limitation of Liability Act (Lola), which allows shipowners to peg liability at the post-accident value of the vessel. Most legal analysts are sceptical of Trans­ocean's chances of winning. If wrong­doing is proved, the protection offered by Lola evaporates. But it does cause delays for any plaintiffs seeking damages against Transocean.

The Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability (Spill) Act, now working its way through the Senate, repeals Lola and amends the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) to allow recovery of non-economic damages for maritime death victims' families, starting with the families of the men killed on 20 April. Keith Jones, father of Gordon Jones, one of the engineers killed, is lobbying Washington to push through the changes.

As it stands, the families are only able to claim for financial damages, which are based on the deceased's future earnings minus the costs they would have incurred had they continued to live. "Whoever is found to be at fault ought to be liable to pay greater damages than the loss of Gordon's pay cheque," said Jones.

Jones launched his campaign in June. "I am told the bill passed from introduction to passage on the House floor faster than anything in the history of Congress, other than compensation of victims of 9/11 and the declaration of war against Japan," he said, "But then we went to the Senate and things stalled because special interests have flexed their muscles." It's not Big Oil that's lobbying against the bill, but the cruise-line industry. The oil lobbyists are notable only by their silence. "They seem to be taking a more principled position," Jones offered.

Uphill battle

Another point of contention is the limits of liability offered by the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), passed in 1991 in the wake of Exxon Valdez. The Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources (Clear) Act, now in the Senate, seeks to remove the liability cap for responsible parties, currently set at $75m. BP volunteered to waive that protection in May, and the setting-up of the $20bn escrow fund dwarfs the cap. But, as it stands, BP could reimburse itself for its clean-up costs through the escrow fund.

The fund, which replaced BP's own claims process on 23 August, is administered by Ken Feinberg, a lawyer, and is offering interim payments to people who have suffered damages as a direct result of the spill. Feinberg says that in three months time he will shift the focus to settlement payments, but those wanting one will also waive their right to sue BP and others. This outraged lawyers, who say Feinberg is forcing people to accept final payments out of need before the spill's full impact is known.

Anyone filing a claim not meeting Feinberg's guidelines will likely face an uphill battle trying to tap into the fund. Amanda Domangue of Houma, Louisiana, runs an oil trucking company. Since the moratorium was announced, business has all but dried up. Yet as her business was not directly affected by the spill, but the politics that ensued, her claim is not covered by the escrow fund. In late August, she took Feinberg to task at a town hall meeting - he had advised her and other oil industry workers not to file the suit because they were "unlikely to win". "So what do I do?" she asked me when we spoke. "You either get a cheque, if you can, and you release BP, or you file a lawsuit and you'll be tied up in court. Either way, it has no bearing on Feinberg. It's not his personal issue. He comes from Massachusetts."

Annabel Symington

An accident in slow motion

The BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began in April, when a bubble of methane rose from the well, causing an explosion that killed 11 people and injured a further 17.

The subsequent fire burned for two days, but the real disaster took place 5,000 feet below the Deepwater Horizon rig on the ocean floor, when the blowout preventer, a device intended to stem the flow of oil in an emergency, failed to engage. Initial estimates suggested that crude oil was flowing into the sea at a rate of 1,000 barrels a day, although this was rapidly revised upwards as the disaster intensified. The slick soon extended for 100 miles and tar balls began washing ashore in Louisiana and Alabama.

The first attempt to cap the well with a large metal dome came two weeks after the initial explosion, but failed when crystals formed inside and threatened to float it away. A week later, a second attempt also failed. By this point, experts estimated that 20,000 barrels of oil a day were spilling into the sea. This figure doubled again after Congress forced BP to release video footage of the leak.

In July, nearly three months after the initial leak, a containment cap stopped the flow of oil. This cap was then reinforced with cement, and by the beginning of September, a relief well was completed, permanently closing the leak.

Caroline Crampton

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war