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Crimes Against Nature: BP Pays Small Price for the Deepwater Disaster

image of David Gessner

“I hear comments that large oil companies are greedy companies, or don’t care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.” --BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, June 16, 2010

On April 20, 2010, eleven men were sacrificed in the name of profit.

This is no exaggeration.

A decade before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the events of that night had been set in motion, when leaders of a company named BP (formerly British Petroleum), despite earning billions of dollars annually, decided they wanted to earn even more.

How would they do that? Simply and systematically, as reported by investigative journalism outlets ProPublica and PBS Frontline. They would enact a 25 percent cut in operations costs across the board, and would maintain this drastic cut even as those operations were expanding downward into new territory 13,000 feet below the ocean floor. What did this mean in practical terms? It meant they would cut corners and skip regulations and eliminate safety measures.

And what were the practical results?

First, in 2005, a BP refinery blew up outside of Texas City, Texas, killing 15 people, after the cost-cutting measures had taken their toll on safety standards. That same year an offshore rig named Thunder Horse -- BP’s flagship -- toppled due to faulty valves. Then, the next year, 20,000 gallons of oil spilled from a rusty BP pipeline in Alaska.

And finally, as we all know, two years ago a rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico; 11 people died, and an area roughly the square mileage of Florida was flooded with oil.

Pause and consider this. Those who made these decisions were people: people like you or me, more or less, who were already making enormous amounts of money. Staggering amounts, amounts that taken together could probably support most small cities, but instead were being divided among a handful of executives and a board made up of a dozen or so people. But those people -- and the system that pushed them to act in the way that they did -- were rapacious, demanding even more. Which meant not paying for a few hundred thousands of dollars on safety tests, and shutting off those pesky alarms that tended to slow things down.

Am I exaggerating? Nope. Here, for example, are the details of some of the cost-cutting measures -- according to the reporting by ProPublica and Frontline -- that were instated prior to that original Texas City blast:

  • Cut inspectors and maintenance workers by the dozens: save just over $1 million.
  • Eliminate safety calendars: $40,000 in savings.
  • Reduce purchases of safety shoes for employees: $50,000 in savings.
  • Eliminate safety awards: $75,000 in savings.

In other words, there’s a long record of criminal activity to look back on. In other words, decisions that led to Texas City, Thunder Horse, the Alaska spill, and to Deepwater Horizon were conscious ones. Or, to put it another way, premeditated.

* * *

Yesterday, when BP pleaded guilty to its crimes and was fined $4.5 billion, I thought back to a couple of moments during the congressional testimony of BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward during the summer of 2010. I remember Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas apologizing for what he perceived to be the “tragedy” of BP’s mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government -- a $20 billion “shakedown” by the president, he called it. And I remember that a woman jumped up from the back row and waved her hands, which she had painted black, and yelled: “He should be charged with a crime!” She was quickly dragged away. Back then it was easy to roll your eyes and call her a wacko, regarding her the way we do NFL fans who paint their chests and wear wedges of cheese on their heads.

But now that wacko doesn’t seem so wacko. Now that wacko has been proven right. And as for Congress needing to apologize to BP? I was happy to see that among the 14 criminal charges that the company pleaded guilty to was one of lying to Congress.

According to today’s New York Times:

Prosecutors also charged David Rainey, BP’s former vice president for exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, with obstruction of Congress and making false statements for understating the rate at which oil was spilling from the well.

As part of its plea agreement, BP admitted that, through Mr. Rainey, it withheld documents and provided false and misleading information in response to the House of Representatives’ request for information on how quickly oil was flowing. While Mr. Rainey was publicly repeating BP’s stated estimate of 5,000 barrels of oil a day, the company’s engineering teams were using sophisticated methods that generated significantly higher estimates.

I am less happy that the only other individuals singled out were two BP officers aboard the drilling rig, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, both of whom face manslaughter charges for their negligence in supervising the tests that would confirm the well had been properly sealed. No doubt they were individually negligent, but in fact they were part of a larger corporate negligence, a requisite negligence, and it would have been nice to see some names closer to the top of the company next to the word “manslaughter.”

That missed opportunity for justice, combined with the fact that $4.5 billion is about a billion less than BP made in the most recent quarter of this year, might appear to take the sting out of the verdict. “This fine amounts to a rounding error for a corporation the size of BP,” Greenpeace said.

Perhaps. But still. Something important has happened here. This is the largest such fine in U.S. history, and for now at least, criminal charges have stuck. A crime has been recognized as a crime.

* * *

Just as important, this verdict comes a week after a man who believed that corporations are people lost his bid to be president. Perhaps we can see in BP an example of exactly why corporations are not people, and furthermore why these non-people should never be entrusted with our oceans and public lands. Because with the exception of criminals or sociopaths, people would never act this way. Scale it down to a personal, or even a tribal, level, and it seems almost inconceivable. For instance, no healthy individual would ever do to his or her family or clan what this corporation has done, or they would face immediate ostracism from the group or tribe. They certainly wouldn’t be fined and allowed to continue doing what they are doing. Maybe it’s as simple as the size of the organization, or even the words “organization” and “system.” When profit is listed as the lone priority and one’s job, one’s self-interest, hinges on achieving that priority, simple commonsensical morality flies out the window.

In our oversimplified political discourse, we tend to say that conservatives are on the side of business -- but we also tend to say they are on the side of freedom and individual rights. But a corporation like BP is about as individualistic as the Borg on “Star Trek,” the swarm-like entity that follows the collective will as it takes over the world. There is no debate over the nature of this corporate swarm’s directive: profit. And if lives or ecosystems are lost, no matter. Assimilate or die.

In that spirit, BP’s reaction to yesterday’s verdict demonstrates yet another illustration of how a corporation is not like a person. Any individual admitting to these crimes would walk out of the courtroom to an utterly destroyed life. But for BP, yesterday’s result wasn’t really such a bad one. The company can now roll up its sleeves and say that it signals: time to move on.

“We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders,” said Carl-Henric Svanberg, the notoriously eloquent BP chairman. “It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims.”

You can almost see him slapping his hands briskly, vigorously, as he says this. OK, we blew up a well, killed 11 people, shut down the country’s best fishing grounds, despoiled a region, lied to Congress. But enough is enough. Time to pay our tab and move on. Time to get back to the business of making money.

Portions of this column were adapted from The Tarball Chronicles.

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >
What comes to mind from reading your article is that more people (real people and corporations) have to be made aware of the true ramifications of putting pure greed above the basic needs of our planet. If this tragedy didn't do it what will? Scary and sad.