TRYING to defend BP during the last six weeks has been a lonely and isolating experience. As a former employee I have been accused of being biased or emotionally attached. But having seen posts on US websites demanding all BP employees be thrown into jail, it’s hard not to take the world’s hatred of my ex-employer personally – and, given my positive experience there, to see such condemnation as grossly unfair.
In my experience, BP was a nurturing place. If someone struggled with his or her work there was training on hand to help. Employees weren’t just cast out onto the pavement – they were given a chance to get better. Salaries are good, and there have been generations of people who have been able to improve their prospects as a result of a career at BP. If the company were to cease to exist as a result of this crisis it would leave an irreparable hole in the UK and US (where 35,000 people are employed by BP) corporate life.
At last, there is a growing chorus of discontent at the way BP is being treated by the US authorities. Yesterday, RSA chairman John Napier fired off an angry open letter to President Obama accusing him of double standards over BP and it is not before time.
JP Morgan analyst Fred Lucas has already urged the UK government to stand up to the US and defend one of the UK’s largest and most respectable companies.
When you look at the evidence of the last six weeks, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that BP has acted admirably – give or take a couple of unfortunately phrased comments from chief executive Tony Hayward and its hapless press chief Andrew Gowers – ever since the tragic 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil well. As the blog In Defence of Liberty points out, BP executives didn’t hide or evade responsibility for the oil spill. Instead, Hayward accepted that BP was ultimately responsible and moved to the US to personally oversee operations in the Gulf and liaise with US authorities. Since the explosion the company has held regular news conferences and has been transparent about the size of the spill and its effects on the environment.
Most likely against the advice from its lawyers, BP has set up centres along the coastline so that fishermen and people whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf can make claims for financial assistance. BP has also committed $500m to research into deepwater drilling in an effort to avoid another disaster of this size.
This is the BP that I recognise.
It is understandable that President Obama is angry about the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
However, suggesting that Tony Hayward requires an ass kicking is a step too far – especially when you see the lengths the BP chief has already taken, and the fact that his family is receiving threatening mail and phone calls at their home and are now under police protection.
Obama’s ire would be better directed at US citizens. The very fact that BP was even drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was due to America’s insatiable demand for oil. According to the latest data from the Energy Information Association (EIA) the US remains the world’s largest consumer of oil by a hefty margin. In 2008 the US consumed a whopping 19.5m barrels per day of the stuff. China, in second place, consumed less than half that at 7.8m barrels per day.
The fact that Americans have one of the highest standards of living in the world is due to companies like BP that take on the exceptionally risky task of searching, extracting and refining hydrocarbons suitable for use in modern life.
It’s unlikely that Americans will stop using air conditioners en masse this summer or get rid of their cars as a result of this oil spill. But the fact remains that unless the US dramatically reduces its demand for oil, then companies will continue to search for it in hard to reach places and the prospect of a tragic accident like this one occurring again will remain.
The author now works at City A.M.