On November 15, the Department of Justice announced that BP Exploration and Production Inc. agreed to plead guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, one count of felony obstruction of Congress, and violations of the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts, as a result of the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, maintained by BP, which killed 11 people, injured 17 others, and caused the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion in criminal fines and penalties, the largest criminal resolution in U.S. history.
But what does this mean for the field of bioethics? The BP oil spill raises issues that fall squarely within the field’s domain, including public health and the ethical use of technology.
The explosion was a result of BP’s insufficient controls on high-tech equipment that dropped five miles before piercing the earth to gulp petroleum from beneath the sea-floor. Without doubt, the Gulf of Mexico’s ecology will be permanently impacted by the 35,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil per day that leaked from a sea-floor oil gusher for 56 days, triggered by the explosion.
Along with the environmental damage, the BP oil spill created a multiplicity of public health concerns. Crude oil contains a mixture of carcinogens such as volatile hydrocarbon compounds. Before allowing volunteers to venture near the oil spill, BP required participants to sign a waiver of liability, which stated that exposure may lead to numerous, and potentially fatal, health risks. According to Marylee Orr, Executive Director for Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), those exposed to the oil experienced dizziness, headaches, nausea, and rapid heart beat. Other effects to exposed individuals, who include but are not limited to fishermen and clean-up volunteers, continue to be explored. For example, PAHs have been proven to cause tumors in laboratory animals that have inhaled the fumes from these substances. However, at the time of the spill, local public health officials determined that respirators were not required for oil clean-up crews.
The ethical questions surrounding the public health implications of the BP spill are numerous. What was the ethical obligation to ensure the health and safety of those who were exposed to the oil? Was there a unique obligation to offer them access to any kind of specialized medical care? If so, on whom does the responsibility fall – the government, insurance companies, BP, or some combination thereof? Furthermore, similar to informed consent questions encountered in other settings, one might consider whether the waiver of liability that BP provided adequately informed individuals of the health risks, alternatives, and consequences of participation. Were the circumstances under which people signed the forms free of coercion or conflicts of interest?
The use of advanced technology that serves to alter the natural world also raises significant concerns. The BP spill is not the only disaster caused by the use of advanced technology, and it will probably not be the last one. As history has progressed, so have human technologies to alter the natural order in ways that were previously unimaginable. And thus, traditional ethical questions arise – how should humanity utilize technology in a way that protects human values, but does not hinder scientific advancement? This debate is as relevant to embryonic stem cell research as it is to the creation of drills with the ability to stretch for miles in search of petroleum and other natural resources.
Many companies rely on developing technology for large oil companies in order to secure a financial profit, and many companies specialize in manufacturing technologies that impact the environment, and as a result, public health. What are the ethical considerations that must be addressed when, or before, creating this kind of nature-altering technology? The interdisciplinary expertise that already lies within the bioethics community can greatly help to inform the framework for ethical concerns raised by the BP spill. For example, the spill raises broad philosophical questions, such as: What sort of moral values guide the human relationship with nature? Are there obligations to protect nature? If so, what are they? International and cross-cultural observations regarding approaches to the environment may lead to a better understanding of the ethical considerations across countries and cultures.
As the global demand to harness the environment’s energy to power modern life is increasing, the ethical debates that surround the BP experience are vast.
Samer B. Korkor is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.