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by Tony Allen-Mills
Published by: The Sunday Times
Date: June 13, 2010
About the time President Barack Obama was sternly discussing the BP oil spill with the prime minister, David Cameron, by telephone yesterday, a protest group known as the South Florida Raging Grannies was plastering its latest video across the internet.
A cheerful ditty entitled BP You Suck, it included the following lyrics, sung to the tune of the American marching song John Brown’s Body: “You bypass the inspections and ignore the warning signs/ You bribe your way to drilling rights and profit from your crimes/ Eleven workers now are dead and fish all swim in slime/ Take your frigging drilling rigs and don’t come back no more.”
That was just one of the milder expressions of anti-BP rage as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill headed into a third month of ruinous pollution and increasingly poisonous politics.
As BP executives braced for what may prove their toughest week since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, the formerly special relationship between Washington and London was one of several potential casualties of America’s search for culprits for its worst environmental disaster.
On Wednesday, BP’s previously invisible chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, will appear at the White House for what is likely to prove a humiliating dressing down from a president appalled that an unfortunate offshore accident has turned into a leadership crisis threatening to tarnish his administration. And on Thursday, Tony Hayward, the company’s beleaguered British chief executive, is certain of a scathing reception when he appears before the congressional oversight and investigations sub- committee, one of numerous official bodies examining BP’s behaviour both before and after its underwater well erupted and began spewing millions of gallons of oil.
Amid signs that senior British officials are becoming angry at Obama’s treatment of one of Britain’s most successful companies, the oil continues to gush. Every day, more oil-smothered pelicans arrive at Louisiana rescue centres. Waves thick with slimy oil bear down on pristine beaches from Texas to Florida.
Scientists bicker about exactly how much oil has been escaping from the wellhead one mile below the surface of the Gulf. One of the latest estimates is that it may have been gushing up to 40,000 barrels of oil a day — far more than the 5,000 per day that BP had originally estimated.
As engineers have deployed a strange vocabulary of top kills, top hats and junk shots in efforts to cap the well, the streets of the American South have increasingly filled with scurrying lawyers seeking clients with a claim — any claim — against BP. Some analysts believe the cost of the spill could rise to $40 billion if punitive damages are imposed.
Yesterday it emerged that Florida and other states are seeking billions for the sales tax they claim to be losing from tourists deterred by the oil spill.
Who’s going to pay? Obama, the lawyers and the American public are determined that it will be BP — down to the last cent. Tomorrow the BP board will hold a teleconference and will discuss compensation and whether to suspend dividend payments.
The final decision is likely to be made after BP’s chairman meets Obama, who is desperate to placate American concerns that BP might run out of money to pay the expected billions of dollars in compensation and clean-up costs.
Suspension or a cut in the dividend would affect millions of British — and American — investors. Only a few months ago, BP was Britain’s biggest company (by stock market capitalisation), with its dividend payments accounting for about £1 in every £7 earned by UK pension funds.
Now its value has collapsed by 40% and it looks like leaking billions into US legal cases for years to come.
AT BP’s London headquarters they take health and safety seriously. Visitors are guided through the fire drill and signs boast that there have not been any incidents for more than 1,000 days. Calm reigns, and there isn’t a whiff of oil or a tar ball in sight.
Last week, too, Svanberg remained as uncommunicative as ever. Accosted by a reporter, he repeatedly responded to questions by muttering: “No comment, no comment.”
It was left to some British politicians to speak up in BP’s defence as Obama sought someone’s “ass to kick” and other US officials vowed to keep “the boot on the neck of British Petroleum”. Lord Tebbit, the Conservative peer, denounced the American response as “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multi-national company”. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, declared himself alarmed by “anti-British rhetoric” and US “name-calling”.
The view is different in much of the US. Obama is merely the skinny end of a bloated wedge of American abuse. Numerous environmental pressure groups have taken to the streets to protest against BP’s actions. There were sporadic reports of gunshots fired and signs vandalised at some of America’s 12,000 BP stations — although most reported business as usual.
BP-related stories on the internet are attracting oceans of hostile US comment. “How can they be siphoning up to 50,000 barrels a day when they told us the leak was only 5,000 barrels a day?” one writer asked. “I think BP execs should be made to drink the difference.” Another added: “All the oil and tar balls should be put in a British landfill.”
The anger has been fuelled in the past few days by pitiful pictures of pelicans drowning in BP oil, yet it is also clear that the company’s dismal safety record and its poor handling of public relations have stoked American wrath.
The US media has been alienated by heavy-handed restrictions on reporting the spill, with a string of local and national firms complaining that BP or its contractors have orchestrated bans on flights over affected areas, barred photographers from public beaches and, in one case, blocked journalists from accompanying a visiting senator.
Obama also condemned the company for spending $50m on advertising in an attempt to improve its image.
Yet the biggest shock for the president and his team may have been the alarming record of safety lapses that has continued to emerge from BP’s files since the accident.
A series of internal BP documents published by ProPublica — an investigative website that won a Pulitzer prize this year — claimed last week that senior BP managers had repeatedly warned over the past decade that safety and environmental rules were being disregarded.
“These documents portray a company that systematically ignored its own safety policies across its north American operations — from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico to California and Texas,” stated ProPublica.
This House Believes That Britain Should Pay For America’s Worst Environmental Disaster