This morning, as I was driving through Mount Pleasant, SC on my way home to do more studying following my three-hour daily Bar Exam review class, I stopped at an intersection next to a late-model Ford pickup truck and its in-tow fishing boat, a great-looking center-console craft complete with all sorts of antennae and oceanfishing gear. Scrawled on the back of the cab of the truck, in the same sort of auto paint used to celebrate graduations and cheer on high school football teams, were two words in enormous block lettering:
In the week-and-a-half since moving to the Lowcountry, I have become acutely aware of the trepidation felt by so many here with regard to the oil spill currently ravaging the marshes and beaches and wildlife along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama coasts in the Gulf of Mexico. Just like along the “Redneck Riviera” and the rest of the Gulf Coast, much of the economy here is based upon the tourism and fishing and other related industries supported in spades by the beautiful beaches and pristine waterways along the South Carolina coast. The worry is that quantities of oil, with or without disruption by a tropical storm, could get caught up in established currents and work its way around south Florida and threaten beaches and marshes and wildlife here.
On Sunday, allowing myself a break from a study schedule sure to get exponentially more grueling in the days and weeks to come, I walked with my daughter and my dog along the beach on Isle of Palms, in fact right where much of the film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, Dear John, had been shot. As I always do when able to spend time on Isle of Palms, I marveled at the beauty of the place — as my daughter became more and more determined to find the perfect seashell, I found myself staring at the dunes, the vegetation, the sites where in previous years I had watched as just-hatched loggerhead turtles waddled their way toward the surf for the very first time.
It’s remarkably and justifiably easy to get caught up in the worry. I know people who depend upon the water and wildlife for their livelihood. Likewise, I know people who depend upon tourism to put food on the table, and my own father lives right on a beach which would be heavily affected by the downhill consequences of what’s been happening in the Gulf of Mexico for too long now. It’s easy, indeed, to get caught up in the worry, and I certainly understand how those who hold British Petroleum at least partially responsible would like for the company to reap what it has sown in its bottom line.
Certainly, this president and his administration could never, ever be considered “business-friendly” in any sense of the concept, and combined with the likely duty felt at the White House to kowtow to the environmental left wherever possible–not to mention the political pressure and public relations problems brought about by the widespread perception that the president and his administration has proven inept in the face of this crisis–the idea that public furor could transmogrify into administration-wide calls for bankruptcy is not so far-fetched. Deliver a blow to both big oil AND big business? I would expect those currently running the show in Washington, D.C. to absolutely jump at the chance. And experts are starting to talk.
In the case of bankruptcy, however, we need to be careful what we wish for.
At this time last year, as the specter of Chapter 11 bankruptcy loomed over General Motors, a group of about 300 people found themselves in the midst of a legal nightmare. The 300 or so people were tort claimants, people who had been injured–some seriously–by defects and problems with vehicles produced by GM and Chrysler, people who themselves at one time or another had probably wished the financial worst for the company or companies whose defective product had left them battered, broken, paralyzed or grieving. Among them, the total amount of damages sought came in at an estimated $1.25 billion. Chrysler similarly found itself facing 160 tort claims, with its balance sheet showing an aggregate value of roughly $615 million.
When it came to the automakers, Chapter 11 bankruptcy created “New GM” and “New Chrysler.” “New GM” found itself owned in part by folks like the governments of the United States, Canada and Ontario, and “New Chrysler” by the U.S. and Canadian governments alongside Fiat and the United Auto Workers’ Viva Pension Benefit Fund. Unfortunately for the tort claimants, hundreds of people legitimately and in some cases devastatingly hurt due to GM and Chrysler products, bankruptcy courts permitted “New GM” and “New Chrysler” to purchase the assets of their bankrupt old incarnations, “Old GM” and “Old Chrysler,” free and clear of any liabilities stemming from claims filed before the automakers’ bankruptcy petition date.
In other words, they got nothing. Minor victories came in “New Chrysler” and “New GM” agreeing to assume liability for future claims, but the people who remained bent and broken as the automakers were bailed out found their right to redress decimated.
Now, think of the Gulf of Mexico. Think of the families who depend upon the waterways and wildlife for food on their own table, tourism for their own livelihood. Think of the people wholly ignored by Hollywood and the same elitist set who run to the aid of Haitians and Burmans and everyone else, yet remain eerily silent when our own find trouble in their daily lives through no fault of their own. Right now, BP and the Obama administration are quick to reassure everyone in televised commercials and prime time speeches that those who file legitimate claims for damages caused by the oil spill will receive just compensation — the fate of General Motors and Chrysler, however, should be enough for those Americans affected by the spill to not rest so easily.
As we see images every day of the once pristine beaches now tarnished with oil, the birds and other wildlife fighting to move and breathe, and the thousands upon thousands of gallons of oil continuing to flow into the Gulf, it is understandably easy to want nothing more than to see heads roll. And while I’m all for laying blame at the feet of those responsible, we must first focus our energy on stopping the flow and then on how to best clean up the mess caused by what has already spilled. After that, however, when the time does come for investigations and committees and reevaluations of how environmentalist groups have driven us away from shallow waters and onshore sites in ANWR and beyond, when the time finally does come for ensuring that heads roll and financial consequences are put into place, we all need to look before we leap.
“BANKRUPT BP” may very well seem like the right thing to scrawl on the back of a truck hauling a fishing boat, and it may very well seem like the end result ultimately desired by this administration, but recent history has shown us that what seems just and right on its face could very well serve to ultimately harm those already feeling the brunt of this disaster.