Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Everything is soothed by oil, and this is the reason why divers send out small quantities of it from their mouths, because it smooths every part which is rough.
— Pliny the Elder, Natural History
The British anger is really over the fact that Americans lack the stiff upper lip for which the British are so famous. Instead of just sucking it up and putting on a brave face we seem to be engaged in a constant state of whinging and it’s hard for the British not to believe that it’s nothing more than wanting to make them and one of their prized corporate citizens look bad.
In fairness to the Americans, one has to observe that the oil being spilled (the word that is consistently used to describe something that never having been contained except by nature, was hardly capable of being “spilled”) is having a devastating effect on the environment and its inhabitants. Millions of people are having their lives irreversibly altered if not shattered with no prospect of returning to a pre-spill way of life during their lifetimes, presidential promises to the contrary notwithstanding. The environment will be irreversibly altered for hundreds of square miles with no prospect that the life contained therein will recover within the foreseeable future.
And it’s not that BP (referred to as “British Petroleum” by some commentators, in an attempt, the British think, to create more anger towards their country) did not do everything within its power, sort of, to protect against the very disaster that occurred. So thorough was BP that in the response plan that it furnished the government describing how it would deal with disasters, it said it had plans to protect “Sensitive Biological Resources” in the Gulf. It defined those resources to include “Sea lions, Seals, Sea Otters and Walruses”. That shows an amazing thoroughness since sightings of any of those creatures in the Gulf have, in recent centuries, been extremely rare. (During the recent congressional hearings in which executives from other companies that were drilling in the Gulf testified, it was disclosed that many of the response plans prepared by them also promised to protect those animals.)
BP also identified its “primary equipment providers in the Gulf of Mexico Region for deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, 7 days a week basis.” One of those providers, identified in a link on the proposal, was to a Japanese Home Shopping site but that was just a mistake and does not suggest BP was negligent. The fact that it identified them was significant even though when the event occurred the providers, including the Home Shopping Network were, contrary to the representation, unavailable. In its response plan it also says it has “personnel, equipment, and materials in sufficient quantities and recovery capacity to respond effectively to oil spills from the “worst case discharge scenarios” covered by the plan and it is almost certain that it believed that.
A rarely mentioned fact about the response plan is that it is almost 600 pages in length. That, too, speaks to the thoroughness of BP’s work.
Considering all of the foregoing, it is easy to see why the British are so upset by criticism of the company and its consequential damage to BP’s reputation.
BP is a very important British company. It has historically paid really good dividends and its stock is widely held by teachers’ unions, pension funds, etc. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London spoke for the British public when he expressed worry about “anti-British rhetoric” and “name-calling” from American politicians. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was important to remember the “economic value BP brings to people in Britain and America.” (The Americans will be forgiven if that benefit has been somewhat eclipsed by the disaster.) In addition, BP pays close to $1.4 billion in British taxes and any diminution in that amount would harm the British economy.
The Conservative peer, Lord Tebbit, was quoted in the New York Times as calling the American response “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational company.” Sir Chrisopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the U.S. said that the British government “must put down a marker with the U.S. administration that the survival and long term prosperity of BP is a vital British interest.” That is easy for Americans to overlook when contemplating the long-term survival and prosperity of residents of the gulf coast.
I am taking the concerns of the Brits to heart. I will, as I hope this column proves, say nothing but nice things about BP. And irrespective of what happens to the people who live on the Gulf coast, I join BP’s president in expressing the hope that he can get his life back. I am sure this has been an unpleasant and stressful time for him.