US oil disaster: BP – beyond principle
Everyone is playing politics, not least a federal government with a long history of ignoring Louisiana's woes
The admission by Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, that his company was "absolutely responsible" for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico came not a moment too soon. BP spokesmen spent all last week trying to palm off responsibility on to Transocean, which owns the rig on which the blowout happened. Yesterday BP took responsibility for the cleanup operation and said that it would pay all necessary and appropriate cleanup costs. In truth, the oil giant could do no other than confirm what Barack Obama had already proclaimed publicly, that it would be footing the bill. In the words of interior secretary Ken Salazar, the US government's job was to keep their boot on BP's neck, and yesterday it yielded results.
Everyone is playing politics, not least a federal government with a long history of ignoring Louisiana's woes. Learning from George Bush's fatal mistakes in dealing with Hurricane Katrina five years ago, Mr Obama and his officials were all over New Orleans at the weekend. But neither a nominally contrite BP nor an activist president may be enough to prevent what could still turn out to be the world's most devastating oil spillage. For this, BP in particular and the oil industry in general must take their share of the blame. No one forced BP to drill the world's deepest wells in the Gulf of Mexico. It was its business strategy to be a leader of the industry's frontiers in the Gulf and the Arctic.
Mr Hayward may have personally done much to turn around the fortunes of a company accused of putting profits before safety after a blast at a Texas oil refinery. But he evidently had not done enough. Blowouts are not uncommon, nor is the sight of a fail-safe device failing, like the blowout preventer on the floor of the ocean. It is late in the day to be finding out that staunching the three leaks on the ocean floor with robot-controlled submarines is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark. Nor is this the time to be doing things never yet tried before at this depth, like building and lowering 74-tonne steel funnels to hoover up the gushing oil. These technologies should have been tried and tested before BP got the licence to drill there.
But it was the other way round. BP was in the forefront of lobbying to contain the regulatory framework within which it had to operate in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year it spent $15.9m on federal lobbying on issues like drilling on the outer continental shelf. Even as this disaster unfolds, BP continues to oppose tougher rules of safety auditing, arguing that voluntary compliance is enough. However, this catastrophe is not unfolding off the coast of Nigeria or Azerbaijan, but on home turf and on primetime television. Maybe this time, it will change minds.