Oil has been gushing from BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico since April — and the flow shows no signs of abating any time soon. The Richter Scale explores what the BP oil spill reveals about the global consequences of corporate — and national — risk-taking cultures and preferences.
There are times when the use of a single word really says it all. Case in point: In its ad campaign following the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP started the text of its full-page print ads
with a shockingly honest statement: “Since (sic!) the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything possible …”
Truer words have rarely been spoken — and it is hard to recall a more classic case of a very public form of self-indictment.
In other words, until the accident occurred, we were content to do drilling in a happy-go-lucky mode. We didn’t employ safety and backup procedures that are mandatory in similar deepwater situations in, say, Norway. Instead, we relied on a much cheaper technique — constantly pushing the envelope with the regulators.
How much did that cost us? A pittance, really. Maybe a few tickets to football games, possibly including flights aboard corporate jets for those supposedly supervising us. Holding out the hope to these “supervisors” that, if they proved themselves to be pliable enough, they might find a corporate job to make some real money?
What about foresight? Precaution? Setting up a safety net? Why? The oil business is for real men — it involves the willingness to take on real risks. It’s a bit like a high-performance circus, doing high-wire trapeze acts.
Plus, if push comes to shove, we’ll always have our Washington lawyers and lobbyists who will labor hard to make bad things go away. (Or so we thought, until now.)
What is so astounding about the recent events is that Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO since the departure of Lord Browne in May 2007, had supposedly made it his trademark to imbue the erstwhile Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (called BP only since 1954) with a strong safety focus.
In interviews after being elevated to the top post, he was quite outspoken about the fact that, under his predecessor, there had been too much focus on mergers and acquisitions — and not enough on the engineering basics of the business.
A culture change was in order, Mr. Hayward proclaimed. Alas, it did not happen. The company evidently stuck to its swashbuckling style, throwing caution to the winds.
This goes to show how much credibility BP’s corporate pronouncements ought to be regarded with: Next to none. From the absurd times of Lord Browne who, in an incredible act of corporate arrogance, claimed that BP really stood for Beyond Petroleum, to now, it’s all about spin — and not sticking to the basics of at least a modicum of honesty and accountability.
Sadly, a range of NGOs — no longer satisfied with their principal role as watchdogs of corporate power — went along for the ride. They became mindless enablers of BP’s absurd spin campaigns, no doubt feeling much better about themselves by now being so close to the real power — the CEO.
Providing checks and balances? Having a spirit of opposition? Those yesteryear qualities have gone missing. It’s much dandier to hang out with the corporate top guns and engage them in palavers at retreats all over the world, even if one was (mis)used for little more than providing a cover-up the size of a fig leaf.
In a bigger context, BP’s mindless use of the word “since” is right in line with Tony Blair’s guns-blazing approach to follow Mr. Bush into the Iraq adventure. Real men act. Asking questions is for sissies.
Same thing goes for the City of London and the world of finance. As long as we are making out like bandits personally, why worry about the consequences of highly dubious financial instruments?
By the time this stuff fouls up, we will have retired. After all, in finance, you only need a good multi-year run to retire a very rich man — and preferably at quite an early age.
Worrying about systemic consequences? That is so continental European, for those who don’t have the guts to act as real men do.
Now, as long as it was “just” the finance thing, those perpetrators who greatly enriched themselves (and left the rest of us holding the bag for decades to come) could always count on one convenient fact of human life.
The world of finance seems so amorphous, so abstract, that it reaches beyond the imagination of most humans beings. Damages created here, even big ones, are hard to fathom.
That is not true when it comes to oil spills. The disaster that BP created in the Gulf is of biblical proportions. It instinctively reminds most people of the water-borne and amniotic origins of human life, individually and collectively.
Remember California’s three-strikes rule? Consider the financial calamity strike one. The oil spill is strike two. And, without stretching the imagination, the Iraq adventure is strike three — and it’s enough for a life sentence.
One of these, maybe two, may just happen — and give us reason to pause. But to see three epochal calamities happen within the span of just a few years — in fact, seven short years, 2003, 2007, 2010 — ought to lead to serious questions about the validity, and ultimately futility, of dominant cultures.