Sunday, May 30, 2010

BP comes to terms with Karma

Only a month ago British Petroleum was sitting pretty. A major marketing push had slapped a happy face on what was once a very tarnished image. But all good things come to pass and Mr. Murphy was having none of it. Once Mr. Murphy got the go-ahead from a vengeful deity (pick one) his machinations went into overdrive. Every attempt by BP to solve the oil volcano spewing death and destruction in the Gulf of Mexico has met an ignominious end. One month in, BP is looking much less the dashing figure of the future and much more like Warner Brother's Wiley Coyote.


BP lived by greenwashing and now it is dying by greenwashing. For years it attempted to shed its much earned reputation as the bad boy of the oil patch. Not too long ago, in a decade know as the 1990's , BP had one of its major oil refineries in Texas blow up with tragic results. Federal authorities clobbered BP after the fact with huge fines because of BP's lackluster attitude toward safety. Even after the disaster the Feds were still fining BP at a furious pace due to further safety lapses.

It takes some doing to have the worst reputation in an industry chock-a-block filled with scoff-laws and reckless operators, but BP was up to the task. Finally it got so bad that shareholders sent the CEO packing. Enter the new boss. Gazing into the future this man saw a new reality, one "beyond petroleum." BP got into solar plants, into wind power and into other green ventures. Of course BP tooted its own horn loudly over these new ventures. It even did a makeover on its corporate iconography.

Of course some were not so easily hornswoggled. The miniscule investments in non-fossil fuel energies made them cast a jaundiced eye on BP's efforts. Many in the environmental movement were much less forgetful or forgiving of BP's wildcat past. In the end they were proven correct. It was the same old BP; meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

BP was hoisted by its own petard in the shape of the Deep Water Horizon. This was oil drilling technology pushed to the razor's edge and then beyond. It was hubris spelled in all capital letters. To the question put forth by BP of "what could possibly go wrong" Mr. Murphy just piled on his answers. From the failure of the ill named blow-out preventer to the latest efforts at resolution, BP is learning the hard way why you do not mess with Mr. Murphy and his iron laws.

The accident has ripped off the carefully constructed happy face that BP has presented to the unwashed masses and revealed the rot beneath. It is the same old BP with the same sloppy and careless attitude. It is the same reckless disregard for safety and common sense. It is the same monomaniacal drive for profit no matter what the cost to others. It is the same privatization of profit and socialization of loss that has been BP's stock and trade since the founding of the company.

BP stock has taken a nose dive since the Deep Water Horizon exploded onto the front pages of newspapers and into the general public's conscious. It had to be extra galling to BP for the unwashed masses to find out how the whole effort went south. It was just after the corporate big-wigs were celebrating how "safe" the Deep Water Horizon had been up to that point. The grand pooh-bahs were on site when things started to literally explode in their faces. Any dark humor in the situation was lost though with the eleven lives that were sacrificed to BP's hubris.

More than thirty days in, the oil disaster has dragged BP into a whirlpool of controversy. The green and happy face of BP is a relic of better days. The company is in damage control in the real world of the oil spill and the more surreal world of public opinion. In both cases BP's lack of planning is causing an accumulation of damage that cannot be measured.

It is hard to say how serious BP was about being a green energy company. Even granting the corporation the best of motives, the attempt to make the corporation greener environmentally was always going to run at cross purposes to the attempt to make the corporation greener financially. Corporations will always try to maximize profits by minimizing cost. That is capitalism 101. BP was cutting corners every way they legally could with the Deep Water Horizon. Perhaps their efforts pushed the limits so far that they pushed right past legality, it is way too early to determine that possibility. It is fairly obvious that financial green easily trumped environmental green when the subject of off-shore drilling was discussed by the BP honchos.

The only real mystery left is why anyone is surprised that crony corporate capitalists act in such a reckless and privileged manner. Other than libertarian ideologues, no one should believe that corporations will act in the most civic minded and fair manner possible. The Regan maxim of "trust but verify" should be the minimum operational procedure for any one dealing with corporate behemoths like BP. Regulators should take Regan's advice as holy writ. That this self-evident behavior pattern is just dawning on Obama and company is more than a little distressing.

The flat footed response of team Obama is a subject for another time. The subject before us is BP. BP is in a world of hurt because the image they tried to project had no relationship to the actual working of the company. Instead of being green, the company was shown to be just another gross environmental polluter like any other resident of the oil patch. There is just something in the DNA of extractive industries that make them bad neighbors. From Massy Energy to copper mining and beyond; show us a extractive industry and you will find a corporate culture that cares not a whit about the very land they prospect. It is always about ripping out the resource at the lowest possible price , selling that resource at the highest possible cost and never mind the cost to the public commons. It matters not one iota that precious natural resources, the land, the air and the water are permanently damaged as long as the extractive industry can make a profit. That attitude was laid bare for all to see with the Deep Water Horizon disaster. That attitude is still being brought in sharp relief because at this writing the spill continues. BP pretended to be something it was not; something it could never be, and it continues to pay the price for that deception.