Posted: June 4, 2010
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Article SummaryOn June 3, the London Evening Standard published a piece by City Editor Chris Blackhurst urging everybody to “Stop putting the boot into BP – we need it to survive.” The editors asked me to write a response for the next day’s paper. So I wrote one, agreeing with Blackhurst that vilifying BP is unwise and in some ways unfair, then pointing out some other ways I think the vilification is justified. I don’t know if the response was published (the Evening Standard website doesn’t include letters), but here it is.

Why We’re Vilifying BP

Solicited response to a June 3 London Evening Standard column by Chris Blackhurst:
Stop putting the boot into BP – we need it to survive

Chris Blackhurst is right that vilifying BP is doing more harm than good.

BP had absolutely no incentive to risk a devastating blowout. A tiny oil company with one promising well might go for broke – but precisely because BP has enough resources to weather the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it had ample reason to spend big bucks to prevent such a disaster.

So one of two things has to be true. Either this was a vanishingly unlikely event and we were all incredibly unlucky (including BP). Or this was a likelier event than BP and regulators realized – in which case other drillers may be making similar errors. If that’s true, we need a major overhaul in how we drill for oil. And given a similarly devastating miscalculation in the finance industry not long ago, maybe we need a major overhaul in how we assess the probability of all unlikely disasters.

Neither of these two hypotheses justifies the vilification of BP. But three things do justify that vilification:

number 1
BP is famously inattentive to safety. After its 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, BP found deficiencies in its safety culture. When Tony Howard took over from John Browne, he said fixing those deficiencies was a top priority. He didn’t get it done in time.
number 2
Public outrage is an inevitable outcome of most disasters. And BP is its inevitable target. It’s the company whose logo and name are universally recognized, the company that claimed to have moved Beyond Petroleum, the company that hired the contractors. Vilification is part of the public’s normal “adjustment reaction” to bad news. Right now, a spirited defense (especially from BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg) could do more harm than good.
number 3
BP has responded to the outrage poorly. The Blackhurst piece cited some of Hayward’s most offensive moments. Hayward goofed again yesterday when he said surface containment had been “very successful.” Even if that’s true (which no one can know yet), Hayward shouldn’t be the one saying it. The company and its CEO have done many things right – most stunning to me was Hayward’s stated willingness to exceed the U.S. statutory liability ceiling of $75 million. But Hayward has failed to communicate BP’s devastation, compassion, and contrition. Even when he says the right thing – like his concession yesterday that BP was insufficiently prepared for a deep-water spill – he sounds like an engineer stating a truth, not a CEO confessing a sin.

Copyright © 2010 by Peter M. Sandman

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