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The real looters

International Herald Tribune: The real looters

“In the midst of this charity, big oil looted America. The pumps instantly shot past $3 a gallon, with $4 a gallon well in sight. In a thinly disguised attempt to act as if it cared about the people wading in the water, Chevron has pledged $5 million to relief efforts. ExxonMobil and Shell have pledged $2 million apiece. British Petroleum and Citgo have pledged $1 million each.”: “This is nothing next to their wealth.”: “It is not pleasant to see anyone loot a store. But big oil is looting America, and no one is declaring martial law on them.”

Saturday 3 September 2005

Derrick Z. Jackson The Boston Globe

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2005

BOSTON President George W. Bush told the television network ABC on Thursday, “there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud.”

Zero tolerance is meaningless when the White House lets the biggest looters of Hurricane Katrina walk off with billions of dollars.

We are not referring to the people crashing through storefronts and wading through chest-high water with clothes, food and pharmaceuticals. Some folks are disgusting in their thuggishness, but many others are simply desperate, having gone for days without food or water. The latter are living out one of the most famous hypothetical problems in moral reasoning: Should a husband steal a cancer drug he cannot afford for his dying wife?

No such sympathy is to be extended to big oil. The United States has on its hands a disaster so profound that we have not even begun to seriously count the bodies in the floodwaters. It brings us as close as we may get in our lifetime to places like Bangladesh.

New Orleans is under martial law and will not return to normal for years. Members of the Red Cross, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, police agencies and firefighters are sacrificing time and risking lives to save lives. Texas is opening up its schools for homeless Louisiana children. Generous food wholesalers are giving away their stocks.

In the midst of this charity, big oil looted America. The pumps instantly shot past $3 a gallon, with $4 a gallon well in sight.

In a thinly disguised attempt to act as if it cared about the people wading in the water, Chevron has pledged $5 million to relief efforts. ExxonMobil and Shell have pledged $2 million apiece. British Petroleum and Citgo have pledged $1 million each.

This is nothing next to their wealth. Of the world’s seven most profitable corporations, four are ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Chevron. ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable company, making $25.3 billion last year. It and the other three corporations had combined profits last year of $72.8 billion.

And that was last year. A month ago, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips announced record second-quarter profits of $7.6 billion, $3.7 billion, and $3.1 billion, respectively. Royal Dutch Shell’s quarterly profits of $5.2 billion were up by 34 percent over the same period last year.

If ExxonMobil were to maintain its current pace of profits, it would cross the $30 billion barrier for 2005. The company’s chief financial officer, Henry Hubble, bragged in classic corporatese, “Our disciplined project management and operating practices deliver the benefits of strong industry conditions to our shareholders.”

Those disciplined operating practices are hardly confined to the oil fields. Everyone knows that Bush does not really mean what he says about price-gouging at the pump, since he just gave energy companies the bulk of $14.5 billion in tax breaks in the new energy bill. Surprise, surprise. In Bush’s two elections, oil and gas companies gave Republicans 79 percent of their $61.5 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If Bush really meant what he said, he would call for a freeze or cap on gasoline prices, especially in the regions affected most dramatically by Katrina. He would challenge big oil to come up with a much more meaningful contribution to relief efforts.

Insurance companies are expecting up to $25 billion in claims from Katrina. For ExxonMobil, which is headed to $30 billion in profits, to jack up prices at the pump and then only throw $2 million at relief efforts is unconscionable.

Thieves and desperate families are so much easier to catch on camera than comptrollers electronically stealing people’s cash. It is not pleasant to see anyone loot a store. But big oil is looting America, and no one is declaring martial law on them.

Derrick Z. Jackson’s column appears in The Boston Globe.

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