On the 20th April the BP rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven people. Experts estimate that the spill has now leaked up to 45 million gallons of oil into the surrounding waters. The White House energy advisor Carol Browner has heralded it as “the biggest eco-disaster ever” as BP’s shares plummet. More than 500,000 gallons of oil are leaking from the wreck every day, meaning it promises to be one of the most difficult clean-up jobs in history.
You might expect that this would encourage immediate action, a comprehensive crisis plan to reassure the world that, whilst huge oil companies may have startlingly little control over their barrels, they at least know what to do when something goes wrong. Unfortunately not. Both BP and the Federal Government spent the weeks following the disaster making statements and muttering about containment domes and dividend payments. They also never appear to have been asked for a contingency plan were an oil rig to malfunction. BP will probably end up having to pay £15 billion to clean up the spill, and yet they had no effective response ready. The mind boggles.
BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was strikingly absent from media proceedings in the weeks following the disaster, sparking criticism and calls for public explanations. Meanwhile, their chief executive Tony Hayward blundered merrily in, admitting they “did not have the tools you would want in your toolkit.” He commented that, of course he wanted the oil spill cleaned up: he wanted his life and his “weekends back” after all. Hayward has also been photographed wandering along the polluted beach, looking wistfully out to sea and apparently bemoaning the cruelty of the gods.
What was needed was swift action and obvious competence, something not provided by either BP or the Obama administration. In the wake of the crisis, the public needed to be convinced that there were capable hands. Instead, BP is still planning on paying its shareholders dividends before the full cost of the clean-up is realised. One can only hope that the Deepwater disaster spills some truths about the oil industry as well.