Jeff Macke | 30.04.2010 18:46 | Ocean Defence
Eleven workers presumed dead. Spill still getting worse. Countless coastal related businesses, among them shrimping, fishing, and tourism, facing catastrophe.
British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward’s inspirational pep talk to his fellow executives? “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” according to today’s New York Times. In addition to the cruel and capricious hand of fate, Hayward has blamed the rig’s owner and operator, Transocean (RIG). Sadly, the two-pronged defense of “It was an unfortunate act of God and, if it wasn’t, it was someone else’s fault” isn’t a uniquely British style of leadership.
It’ll be up to courts all over the world to mete out the blame for the tragedy. Personally, I think Green Peace did it to stop President Obama from expanding offshore drilling. But that’s just gossip mongering on my part. Let’s stick to a factual review of British Petroleum to see if we can’t help Hayward determine why it is that some outside force of nature would hate BP. Let’s start with British Petroleum’s public relations history, then we'll dovetail to some recent practices:
Under Hayward’s predecessor, Sir John Browne (who took the title “Sir” for the same reasons Mr. T took the first name “Mr.”; so people wouldn’t precede his name with something horrible), BP billed itself as a green oil company. Remember those ads with citizens pondering what Big Oil could do to not be inherently evil? Those were BP.
One spot encourages the viewer to think “Beyond Petroleum” the way one would think beyond other self-limiting perceptions. Watch for the “No Swimming” sign 20 seconds into the clip. I hope BP got the ad agency to save those for the Gulf this summer.
Here BP answers the question, “How [are they] assisting and improving... air quality”, “How is [BP] looking out for our future?” At the end, BP notes that natural gas not only burns cleaner than crude oil but is 40% of BP’s energy reserves. What the ad doesn’t say, presumably because it’s old and BP is modest in the way good English people are, is that spewing thousands of gallons of crude a day onto American shores makes that percentage even larger (though the Russians effectively nationalizing the natural gas fields they let BP and others modernize may offset the ratio in the other direction).
Finally, this clip from the company modestly claims that it doesn't just improve the planet, but actually feeds the entire planet.
Wait, the last one was the ad for fictional U-North, the fertilizer company that kills customers and a few lawyers (a carbon offset for killing the farmers, presumably) in the movie Michael Clayton. But you get the idea.
Why would wanting to be seen as incrementally less evil than, say, Exxon (XOM) or Altria (MO) enrage the fates? Well it’s silly for one thing. BP is an oil company. It’s right there in the name. British Petroleum. An oil company pretending to be clean is Gary Hart pretending to be monogamous. Drilling oil or hooking up with staff is necessarily dirty business. Said primly, don’t portray yourself as that which you are not. Said the way one might phrase it on an oil rig, “Don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can't cash”.
The other problem with BP’s clean campaign was that British Petroleum, as it turns out, is actually one of the dirtiest operators in a filth-ridden industry. In 2005, a BP refinery near Galveston, Texas, exploded, killing 15 and injuring 170. BP blamed faulty operation and fired six employees who presumably survived the blast.
In 2006, failure to do routine maintenance with a device called a “Hedgehog” resulted in British Petroleum spilling oil onto the Alaska tundra. In the corporate version of a chain gang, BP had to agree to replace 16 miles of federally regulated Oil Transit Lines.
Later in 2006, BP announced the closure of more than 20% of its wells in Alaska, largely near Prudhoe Bay, due to leakage.
British Petroleum didn’t change as a company simply because it changed CEOs. If you move into a haunted house, it’s still haunted. In this case, BP is haunted by the ghosts of shoddy maintenance and a history of killing people and poisoning the earth. “What the hell did BP do to deserve this?” The question boggles the mind. You can’t do anything to deserve to slather the Gulf Coast with a growing layer of crude oil, Tony. You can’t possibly “deserve” such a thing. You earn it by running a company with a lousy tradition of safety then responding to your first major crisis as manager by pouting and pointing fingers.
I was going to do a whole miniature series of investors and business-related people who are equal to or more evil than Goldman Sachs (GS). Yesterday we started with classically evil “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” Bono, of U2 and Palm (PALM) fame. (See Palm Gets Hail Mary From Bono's Elevation). I was going to slide through Massey Energy’s (MEE) sooty CEO Don Blankenship and generally be a rabble-rouser for a few columns, just to start conversation. (See also, More Evidence of Massey Energy's Dirty Past).
Too late. I’ve already found a winner. Tony Hayward, step right up. You, my good sir, are officially the CEO of the largest scummy organization on earth. Careful with the crown that comes with the title. It may melt under super-heated conditions. Like refinery explosions. Or hell.