The Prestige disaster - A tale of oil profiteering and state complicity

Jan/Feb 2003

The break-up of the Prestige oil tanker off the Spanish coast last November exposed once more the profiteering and criminal practices prevailing in the oil transport industry.

The tanker, carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil, cracked its hull in a storm within sight of the La Coruna lighthouse. It was ordered out to sea by Spanish authorities - and hastened on its way by the intervention of naval warships sent from Spain and Portugal, which forced it 200 km off the Spanish coast. In rough waves, it snapped in two and sank. Within hours, around 10,000 tons of fuel oil had escaped; 50 miles of beaches and shoreline of Spain's Galician province were contaminated; fishing and mussel grounds were choked. Since then large patches of fuel have been drifting westward, going as far as to threaten France's South-West coasts.

The finger of blame was pointed at the Spanish government for its rash actions, which almost certainly sealed the fate of the tanker. If the Prestige had been towed into port at La Coruna, perhaps its cargo could have been safely pumped out. But 10 years before, the tanker Aegean Sea, broke up on rocks off La Coruna, spilling 80,000 tons of crude oil onto the beaches and harbour area. It took five years for the fishing industry to recover. This time the high-sulphur fuel carried by the Prestige posed an even greater environmental risk than crude oil, so officials gambled on sending the ship as far away as possible from their own front yards. The result may turn out to be an even greater catastrophe.

The Prestige disaster is by no means unique. This tanker has now joined 200 others on the world ocean floor. Since oil became one of the major money-spinners of the world economy there have been innumerable other such incidents, causing environmental damage all over the world - from the break-up of the Torrey Canyon in the English Channel in 1967, the Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan coast in 1989, the Sea Empress which hit rocks off Pembrokeshire in 1996, to the Erika off Britanny in 1999.

However, the case of the Prestige does expose particularly clearly the issues behind these disasters - i.e. the lengths to which all the small, medium and large capitalist sharks in the oil business are prepared to go in order to secure the largest possible profits. That this may involve risk to human life, or to the planet's ecological systems matters little to those concerned. They have been prepared to use every trick in the book and invent new ones, thus creating a deliberate web of duplicity which is almost impossible to unravel.

In fact the long and complex chain of interests involved in the transportation and sale of even one relatively small cargo of oil has been getting even longer over the past few decades. And many of the links of this chain are literally rusting through. Yet for the sake of maximising profits and minimising costs, criminal practice is the only game in town or, more precisely, the only game at sea.

A trail of slippery slickers

By tracing the story of the Prestige, it is possible to get some idea of the nature and identity of some of the players involved in this dirty game.

According to reports published in the media and by environmental organisations, the 26-year old Prestige was owned by Mare Shipping International, a company based in Monrovia, the capital of the small, war-torn African country, Liberia.

Mare was set up purely for the registration of this one single old ship. But behind this company is thought to be a large Greek shipping concern owned by the Greek Coulouthros dynasty, which no doubt registers its vessels all over the world under different company fronts to avoid regulation, inspection and taxes.

The Prestige should therefore have flown a Liberian flag and operated under Liberian regulations. However, it was sub-leased by a Greek company called Universal Maritime Ltd., which had re- registered the ship in the Bahamas. So it had dual registration and flew the Bahamas flag. Universal Maritime supplied the Filipino crew, operated the ship and in theory accepted liability for accidents as well as offering itself for a "charter" to carry a cargo of oil.

Two weeks before the Prestige ran into trouble along Spain's "Coast of Death", it had been docked at St Petersburg, where it served as a makeshift oil storage facility. It was then chartered by the commodities trading subsidiary of the Russian Alfa Group, "Crown Resources" to carry a fuel oil consignment from Latvia to Singapore's large off-shore oil facility.

By the time the Prestige hit stormy seas off Spain, there were at least 7 companies (including shipping agents and insurance) which had interests in the tanker and/or its cargo. There was to be still one more company with its fingers in this pie: SMIT Salvage NV, which was to attempt to save the ship, or failing this, the cargo.

This multiplicity of companies and the different kinds of regulatory status under which tankers operate (on the basis of where they are registered), are a feature of today's oil transport business. This situation is further complicated by the fact that during a single voyage, the oil cargo itself can change hands several times, as it is bought and sold through international computerised trading systems.

The result is a comprehensive buck-passing mechanism allowing both states and companies to try to avoid admitting to any responsibility if anything goes wrong.

The greasy plot congeals

What seems to be such a complicated underworld of cowboy companies however, is in reality, merely a screen behind which the world's major oil companies are operating - that is, Exxon-Mobil, Royal-Dutch Shell, Total-Fina-Elf, BP-Amoco, Chevron and Texaco - plus a few other contenders with ambitions to achieve "major" status. After all, most of the oil produced in the world is controlled by these 6 companies. And in fact even in the case of the Prestige, while no major oil company's name has been quoted as having an interest in its 77,000 ton cargo of oil, one can find their fingerprints.

Take Crown Resources, for instance, which "owned" the Prestige's cargo, at least when it left Latvia. This company was originally formed in Gibraltar, though its headquarters are now in Switzerland. It has an office at 33, Cavendish Square, in London and has five British directors (including Joe Moss, a former Gibraltar government minister). But Crown is actually a subsidiary of the Russian Alfa Group Consortium, a huge oil, industrial and banking and retail conglomerate controlled by the shady character, Mikhail Fridman, who is rated as the ninth richest man in the world under 40 years of age, with a net "worth" of $2bn...

The oil subsidiary of Alpha Group is Tyumen Oil, Russia's third largest oil company, with over $1bn in assets. Three years ago, Tyumen came under investigation for its links with the Russian "Mafia". Since then, however, Tyumen seems to have "internationalised" its Mafia connections. So, for instance, among the fat cats who were appointed to Tyumen's advisory board last year, one can find Sir Peter Walters, an ex- chairman of BP, Sir William Purves, an ex-director of Shell Transport and Trading, not to mention James A Harmon, an ex- chairman of the US Export Import Bank - the same bank which granted Tyumen a controversial loan to buy equipment from the US giant Halliburton, thanks to intervention of Halliburton's then chief executive, Dick Cheney, now the US vice-president.

If anything, all this is proof not only of Tyumen's and Alfa Group's newly-acquired respectability, but also of their direct links to the league of the oil "big players". Just as in all the major oil spills of the past three decades or so, the Prestige's seemingly obscure shipment of oil was connected to the highest spheres of imperialist capital! And while there are undoubtedly a myriad of small corrupt entrepreneurs hoping to scavenge the plentiful scraps supplied by the large oil enterprises, the darkest shadow is cast by the giant companies themselves, who set the stage for corrupt "entrepreneurship" and are involved in it up to their necks.

Stretching credibility

The oil majors have not always felt the need to conceal their dirty business behind front companies, however.

Among today's oil majors, Shell actually begun its life (in the 19th century) as a shipping company, pure and simple, carrying cargoes of shells, tea, rice, etc., and later oil for lamps and cooking, in the form of kerosene and paraffin. Shell only got into the oil production and refining industry in 1897, when it saw the opportunity of cornering part of the market in the Middle and Far East against Rockefeller's US oil empire - since it already had assured buyers for its cargoes. Thereafter, it retained its shipping arm as an important component of its business.

In fact, up until 20-30 years ago most of the oil majors ran sizeable tanker fleets under their own national and company flags, employing their own ratings and officers as well as onshore staff. In addition, commercial shipping companies provided more tanker space for oil cargoes - the largest and most notable being those of the Greek shipping dynasties like the Onassis family.

The 1960s saw the advent of the "supertanker", prompted partly by political instability in the Middle-East (which curtailed the use of the Suez Canal) and by the companies' usual eye for cost-savings. These ships were the largest ever built. The first of their kind were constructed out of existing tankers (under five years old) which were literally "stretched" or "jumboised", mainly in Japanese shipyards, by cutting them down the middle and adding a new section, thereby doubling capacity to over 100,000 tons. They measured the length of two and a half football pitches, or if placed on end would have reached almost to the top of the Eiffel tower.

Then these supertankers got even bigger, on the strength of a study done by EGS Colley of BP Tanker Co. He showed how the capital cost of a ship goes up much less rapidly than its size; that once a ship exceeds 35,000 tons, operating costs hardly increase - and that automated supertankers of 200,000 tons plus, do not even require a larger crew.

Of course, these huge tankers were too large and heavy for the shortest route from the Gulf to Western destinations - the Suez Canal. But Colley's study showed that once their tonnage was increased beyond 100,000 tons, they could transport oil via the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope more cheaply than smaller tankers could via the Suez route. For instance, the cost of an 80,000 ton tanker taking crude oil to Rotterdam via the Suez canal was £1.37 per ton, whereas Shell's first 200,000 ton ship, the Myrina, which began service in 1968, cost only 90p per ton - 35% less! So the bigger the tanker, the cheaper it was to transport oil.

Consequently, the major oil companies all turned to jumboising existing tankers in this period and commissioning the building of new super-tankers. By 1970, Shell was running 31 of these new generation super-tankers (the so-called "Very Large Crude Carriers", or VLCCs), despite the explosion of the VLCC Marpessa on her maiden voyage in 1969, followed just 15 days later by the explosion of her sister ship the Mactra. Four seamen were killed in these accidents, and it took two years for the problem to be identified - in the tank cleaning operations, which were then modified.

But no consideration was ever given, neither in Colley's study nor in the companies' decisions, to the much greater social risk that these enormous tankers represented if something went wrong.

From supertanker to rustbucket

The major factor which led the oil multinationals to get rid of their own large tanker fleets was the relative slump in world oil prices which took place in 1979-83. Running their own tanker fleets became less profitable - or in any case they decided that they needed to boost their profits - so new cost-cutting schemes were worked out, accompanied by disposal programmes.

So, in 1983, BP's shipping arm, BP Tanker, cut its fleet of 45 tankers to 29, sacking 1,185 officers and ratings. Shell, on the other hand, took a more indirect course. In 1985, it fired all its own sailors and most of its shore staff. To reduce administrative and wage costs, its ships were re-registered in the Isle of Man, where a leasing agency re-employed the redundant crews. 50% of shore staff were made redundant, the rest re-deployed. And it was only in 1990, when the marine sector again looked as if it could turn a big enough profit, that Shell reconstituted a reduced fleet of tankers manned by its own crews, under its own flag.

The policy of the other oil Majors followed more or less the same pattern. By the end of the 1980s, they had reduced considerably their fleets by voluntarily dispersing some or all of their tankers, either by selling them outright or leasing them to dummy companies based in offshore financial centres or "single ship" companies registered in exotic islands and Third World countries specialising in the provision of this "service". Today, 25% of the world oil tanker fleet is again directly owned and operated by the Oil Majors, while the cost cutting achieved through resorting to subcontracting to independent shipping companies goes on.

As part of their cost-cutting, the Oil Majors have allowed their fleets to age instead of commissioning the building of new ships, so that the world tanker fleet has stagnated compared to requirements. Exxon, for instance, was meant to retire one tenth of its own ships by 2002. But even though it takes 2-3 years for a tanker to be built, the company has not ordered any replacement to date. Perhaps it will just subcontract its old ones? And, of course, very few of the independent shipping companies have the finances to undertake the huge investment required to build a new tanker. Besides, apart from cost-cutting, there is an additional incentive for the companies involved to maintain a relative shortage of tankers - increased profits. In fact in the two years between 1996 and 1998, the profit that could be made from a single day at sea by the owner of a "supertanker" more than doubled, from $18,000 to $38,000!

The consequence of all this has been a serious degradation of tankers' seaworthiness. By 1999, the same old tankers with an average age of 18 years were still going back and forth across the world's oceans. In fact, 41% of the oil tanker fleet was older than 20 years. And not surprisingly, out of the 77 oil tankers which were lost at sea between 1992 and 1999, sixty were more than 20 years old.

Casualisation by another name

The ability of shipping and oil companies to cut costs on oil transport and use ageing tankers relies heavily on the use of so-called "Flags of Convenience", or FOCs, that is flags of countries where ship registration fees are cheap, taxes are usually low or non existent, safety regulations are not enforced and labour laws hardly exist. By 1999, at least 61% the world's oil tankers were registered under such FOCs. But in fact, FOCs are used for all other commercial shipping as well.

There are 29 countries which offer these cost-cutting advantages - mainly obscure island "nations", ex-colonial dependencies or Third World Countries - such as Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas, Malta, Cyprus, and Singapore.

Ships flying FOCs are known in the trade as rustbuckets, "Ships of Shame", floating coffins or casino ships. And for good reason. These ships are easily able to bypass inspection and safety standards which apply in the ports of Europe or the USA. Many of them are very old. The average age of ships registered in St Vincent and the Grenadines is 23 years, 25 years in Cambodia, 28 in Honduras, 31 in Bolivia, etc.. According to the International Transport Federation, in 1999, 63% of all ship losses in absolute tonnage terms were accounted for by just 13 FOC registers, the worst being Panama (average age 16 years), then comes Cyprus, St Vincent, Cambodia and Malta. These ships are more likely to sink and run aground. But when, in addition, they carry oil, they are more likely to burst into flames, explode, or spring a leak and therefore are a much greater risk to life and the environment.

Liberia has been operating one of the oldest FOC services of all - since 1947. By the 1960s, it was the world's "leading maritime power", boasting 24 million tonnage of ship registrations - 5 million more than the USA and 4 million more than Britain! Predictably, however, due to Liberia's history as the USA's only former African colony, the Liberian operation was merely an American front. Today the administration of all Liberian-flagged ships is carried out by a company operating from Virginia, USA.

Liberia provides immediate vessel name clearance, reservation without cost and same day registration. Non-Liberian vessel ownership is permitted, for obvious reasons. According to the Liberian authorities, annual vessel inspections supposedly take place via "a worldwide network of mortgage recordations recognised as secure and efficient by the banking and legal community"! But of course to avoid inspections, ships merely have to stay out of ports which impose such inspections.

Today, Panama tops the league of FOCs, with over 6,000 large ships. Liberia is second. Third and fourth place go to the Bahamas and Malta, where British companies have privileged access - as they do in other islands which used to be part of the British Empire, like Cyprus. Indeed to register a ship in the Bahamas, one has to contact the main office of the Bahamas Maritime Authority, which is located in the City of London. It is hardly a problem that the dummy company which "owns" the vessel has to be in the name of a citizen of the country itself, since lawyers are available with lists of willing citizens. Other FOCs offering tax-free concessions are those of the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands and Antigua /Barbuda - but there are plenty more. More absurdly, even land-locked Luxembourg offers an FOC service!

Because they face no "constraining" labour laws, the majority of chartered ships flying FOCs are crewed by unfortunate "casuals" who are sometimes beaten, cheated out of their wages and dumped in foreign ports with no way to get home - if they are lucky enough not to be one of the many casualties on or over board. Between 1996 and 2001, the International Transport Federation recovered $163m in unpaid wages for crews, and since the ITF only manages to represent a minority among seamen this gives some idea of the scale of the problem.

Most of these casuals are recruited from Third World countries. The Philippines heads today's list as a source of seafarers, with 230,000 supplied in 2000 or 18% of the total for the world commercial fleet. For the sake of comparison, Britain supplies only one tenth of this number (24,145 sailors and officers) to the world fleet.

Avoiding the bill

The second main reason for the oil companies to devolve ownership of their fleets to shadow companies or to charter ships registered under FOCs has to do with avoiding the legal compensation and fines imposed if their tankers break up, burn up and/or spill oil.

It was the oil spill in 1967 from the supertanker, the Torrey Canyon, which gave decisive impetus to this. In fact it set a precedent in more ways than one: it was the largest oil spill to date, and the owners, leasing and charter companies were able to avoid any payment for the clean-up required.

This ship, one of the very first supertankers of its day, was chartered by BP, to carry 118,000 tons of crude oil from the Gulf to European refineries. It hit a reef in the English Channel and broke in half, creating and oil spill which severely polluted the Scilly Isles, the beaches of Cornwall and the coast of Brittany. Nothing on this scale had ever happened before.

The British government was, however, unable to find any party which it could sue for the costs of the clean-up operation. In fact, the Torrey Canyon was registered in Liberia. The registered owner of the ship was Barracuda Tanker, a company based in Bermuda, and one of 7 ad hoc companies set up by Union Oil Co. of California (later to become Unocal) solely for the purpose of leasing its own ships to itself - no doubt because US taxation law made leasing more profitable than ownership. But the registered ship "owner" could prove that it had no assets and therefore could not pay the bill.

Neither was BP liable under the law, even though it owned the cargo, since the responsibility for the cargo is automatically transferred to the ship owner (or subcontractor) until it reaches its destination.

No wonder so many of the oil companies now began the switch to the use of ships running under "Flags of Convenience"! Nor have the laws been tightened sufficiently for companies to be caught by them - as the case of the Erika spill 32 years later shows.

The Erika broke in two off the coast of Brittany in December 1999, spreading a slick of 15,000 tons of fuel oil. TotalFina, which in this case had chartered the 24-year old tanker (registered in Malta) was also found "not legally liable" to pay compensation for damages. Of course, TotalFina had taken the precaution of acting through screen companies - the Bermuda- based Total International Ltd and the Panama-based Total Transport Corporation. Under pressure of publicity it put up £4m for the clean-up... but so far the compensation bill has come to a total of around £120m and is still being assessed to date.

However, the case of the Exxon Valdez shows that FOC or not, the oil majors can still evade liability. The Exxon Valdez, flying under its own flag, registered in the US, broke up after hitting a reef in Alaska in 1989, releasing 11m gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. This was the worst spill in US history. The slick drifted 500 miles, covering 10,000 square miles of ocean and contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline.

In 1991, Exxon was fined $150m for "environmental crime", but $125m of this was "forgiven" because, the court ruled, Exxon had helped clean up the oil and paid certain private claims. For "criminal restitution" it was fined another $100m - which was divided between the state and federal governments. The civil settlement, of $900m was spaced in annual payments over 10 years. The last instalment was paid last year.

However, to date, not one of the claims by fishermen and others who lost their livelihoods as a result of the spill has been met - despite the fact that in 1994, an Alaskan jury found Exxon liable for punitive damages of $5bn. At that time, Exxon appealed and the payment was ruled "excessive" by the court. In June 2002 Exxon Mobil filed to reduce the $5bn damages to only $40m. Exxon claims it has "done its duty" by spending (so it claims) $2bn on cleaning up the pollution. So, 13 years later, this payment is still under review!

Slipping through the rules

New regulations for ships, crews, owners and companies transporting their oil have been announced each time there was a major incident or spill in the seas off the shoreline of the rich countries. But these rules usually only apply for these same "sensitive" ports, seas and shorelines. Since the Exxon Valdez spill, for instance, there have been no spills over 1m gallons in US waters. But deliberate exemption still exists for the bulk of oil transport today, since tankers can ply routes along the coasts of Asia, Africa or in the Gulf of Mexico without being subject to the same standard of regulation and then discharge their cargoes in suitably located offshore terminals far from the major ports - and pleasure resorts of the rich - at least in most cases.

Two international maritime conventions were adopted in 1969 and 1971 against unsafe practices in oil transport. But what did they amount to? That tanker owners (only) be compulsorily liable for damages and that they would insure themselves against this, by taking out insurance equivalent to the value of their cargo - which is nothing compared to the cost of the damage caused by a major oil spill. These conventions also provided for a compensation fund. Initially this fund was financed by companies. But in 1992, it was decided that its funding would be taken over by the taxpayers of the oil receiving countries! So, under the 1992 convention, the owner of the tanker is responsible for the accident with a limit to liability of just $11.8m and the additional costs must be provided by governments in the country where the oil spill ends up - meaning that taxpayers cover the cost of shareholders' liabilities!

Take the case of the Prestige. Already it is the Spanish government that has had to promise help to the fishermen - help which it hopes to obtain from the EU to the tune of a £2/day payment while they are unable to work. The compensation fund can add $176m. But if more money was needed, and it will be, the claimants will have to take legal action to recover it. The Exxon Valdez case shows how little chance of success such claims have.

As a result of the break-up of the 24-year old Erika in 1999, the EU introduced "tougher inspections" on old vessels and announced the phasing out by 2005 of all ships older than 25 years. Yet this year, the European Commission found that France had inspected less than 10% of the ships that had berthed in its ports over the previous 12 months, compared with EU rules which require inspection of "at least 25%" (yes, that is all!) of ships.

The Exxon Valdez spill at least raised the problem of single-hulled tankers, especially old ones. So the US government implemented a mandate in 1990 that all new tankers built in the US should have a second, protective hull, providing a 9-foot barrier between the oil and the sea. And that single-hulled tankers should be retired.

But what happened in practice? Up until last year, of the 26 tankers regularly carrying oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Terminal at Valdez, only 3 had double hulls and these are old tankers. The first new double-hulled tanker commissioned by the company Arco for the Valdez terminal only arrived at the end of 2000.

In April 2001 the International Maritime Organisation decided that all single-hulled tankers built before 1973 should be withdrawn by 2007, and more recent ones by 2015. The EU followed with similar proposals. However the rules governing single-hulled ships and indeed the definition of such ships vary between the IMO, the EU and the different states.

To date around 25% of the world oil tanker fleet has double hulls. But even if the EU does make double hulls mandatory after 2015, if a ship does not leave from an EU port and is not bound for one - as was the case with the Prestige, it would not be subject to EU inspection anyway. Besides, double-hulled tankers are not guaranteed leak-proof. The Italian chemical tanker, the Ievoli Sun, which sank off France's Normandy coast in 2000, leaked some of its cargo of (mainly) styrene, despite its double hull.

The truth is that the rich countries' governments lack the political will to enforce even these minimal regulations. In fact, in many respects, they prove more concerned with helping the oil companies to by-pass regulations, particularly by encouraging the use of FOCs.

Indeed, each one of the major industrialised countries has its own home-grown FOC. The US has Liberia, as mentioned before, but also Panama, which it shares with Japan. Britain has its own galaxy of dependent territories and former colonies, most of which are also tax havens. As to France, which was a bit of a late- comer in this matter, it created its own FOC, in 1986, in the South Pacific island of Kerguelen, a French colony near the Antarctic, populated only by penguins and scientists. Kerguelen-flagged ships do not come under French labour regulations, therefore they can employ crews with up to 65% foreigners and obtain a reduction of 50% on employers' social contributions. So the cost of an oil tanker crew is 25% cheaper in Kerguelen than if it were French flagged, though it is still higher by 35% than the cheapest FOC crews. However the ship has the guarantee of the French state...

Cleaning up capitalism's act?

In the last 32 years, since the Torrey Canyon spill in 1967, according to Lloyd's "Casualty List", there have been 65 significant "accidents and near misses" involving oil cargoes in UK and surrounding waters, 20 of these actually resulting in damage. Some of these incidents were treated as major scandals by the media - and rightly - so that most people remember the names of the tankers involved - such as the Amoco Cadiz, the Braer, or the Sea Empress.

However, this catalogue of disaster pales into insignificance when compared to the damage caused by oil transport and production in the Third World, where most oil originates and where there are no Guardian newspaper readers nor affluent middle class to be outraged at the sludge polluting their favourite beaches.

In fact, who heard about the oil spill off Singapore's southern coast from a Shell charter in June 2002, or the spill from Chevron's offshore drilling in the sea off Angola due to "decayed pipes", which polluted beaches and forced fishermen to stop fishing? Or the Jolly Rubino which leaked its oil and toxic cargo into the unique estuary and wildlife area of St Lucia in South Africa in September 2002? Or the slick 2.5 miles long which leaked from the "Tasman Sea", east of the Chinese port of Tianjin just a week after the Prestige sank?

Who cares when the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta stage protests against Shell and the other oil majors for the decimation of their fish, which for them means not only their "jobs" but their day to day survival? Who cares about the Red Sea and Persian Gulf being affected by oil spills, just because they are the world's "M1" highway of oil transport? Not to mention the biggest ever "oil spill" in world history, in the Gulf - which was the result of the 1991 war waged against Iraq by the imperialist powers?

The people of the poor countries cannot even begin to afford expensive lawsuits in London or Washington. So much for the regulations. The hypocrisy inherent in the so-called conventions of the Western governments and institutions is just as blatant as Shell's attempt to portray itself today as the "environment's best friend" - or even, as it now does, the Ogoni people's "best friend" seven years after Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow Ogoni activists were hanged by Shell's "oil partner", the regime of the Nigerian military dictator, Sani Abacha.

Yes, a world-wide clean-up of the oil business is urgent. But as long as shareholders in London, Washington and Paris, are allowed to carry on raking in the fabulous dividends of the oil industry, these cost-saving, profit-maximising, criminal practices will continue, one way or another.

There are those, of course, who argue that the use of oil per se is the problem. Reducing the reliance on - and therefore the consumption of - oil would mean less need to transport it. But other sources of energy have proved, so far at least, to be unprofitable from a capitalist point of view. Some because they would require increasing energy prices to a level which would be unaffordable for a large section of the population. Others because they still require huge investment in research and development, which in itself cannot be considered a viable "risk" by capitalists at a time when they are looking for short-term gains.

Either way, this only means that capitalist profit itself - and therefore the private ownership of the means of production - are the main obstacles to cleaning up the act of the whole economy - oil-based or otherwise - of the future.

1 January 2003