At first, it was hard to tell whether BP had been the architect of its own demise and that of others, or the unlucky victim of chance, the place where the gambles that are inherent in deep-water drilling finally just came up snake eyes.
That’s no longer true, thanks to a series of recent revelations both about the company in general and more specifically about this catastrophe. They include:
– The documented and longstanding pattern of safety violations across the range of BP operations, from pipelines to refineries to drilling rigs, that far exceed industry averages.
– A corporate culture that valued cutting costs and saving time over safety, a culture that we now know drove a string of misbegotten decisions on board the Deepwater Horizon.
– An apparently conscious corporate decision to pretend as long as possible that the most serious environmental calamity in this nation’s history was really nothing much, a deception that may have delayed a more effective national response.
That’s why things such as the apology to BP by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton are so frustrating. When you see that degree of groveling and deference to industry even under these circumstances, you begin to understand how such an accident was allowed to happen.
Joe Nocera, writing in today’s New York Times, lays out a good case for BP’s malfeasance. Noting a major refinery accident in Texas that killed 15 workers in 2005, followed by a major pipeline spill in Alaska, Nocera writes:
“In retrospect, though, the two accidents represented something else as well: they were a huge gift to the company. The fact that these two accidents — thousands of miles apart, and involving very different parts of BP — took place within a year showed that something was systemically wrong with BP’s culture. (Former CEO John) Browne had built BP by taking over other oil companies, like Amoco in 1998, and then ruthlessly cutting costs, often firing the acquired company’s most experienced engineers. Taking shortcuts was ingrained in the company’s culture, and everyone in the oil business knew it.
The accidents should have been the wake-up call BP needed to change that culture. But the mistakes and negligence that took place on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico — which are so profound that everyone I spoke to in the oil business found them truly inexplicable — suggest that the two men never did much more than mouth nice-sounding platitudes.”
Some of what Nocera hears from others in the oil industry should be judged carefully. In hopes of avoiding more stringent regulations that are certainly coming its way, the industry has a strong incentive to depict BP as a bad actor, rather than a typical operator. But that argument only gets them so far. Rules and regulations, like any other kind of law, have to be written with the least responsible in mind. They’re the ones whose behavior must be changed.
But the larger point is probably valid nonetheless: In an industry that requires zero defects to operate safely, BP as a corporation tolerated a significantly lower standard of operation. For that reason, it’s impossible to feel sympathy for the company, its executives and even its shareholders who have lost dividends and a significant portion of their stock’s value. They reaped the benefits of cost-cutting for years; now they must reap the consequences of it.
Their suffering is minor compared to what is happening to millions whose only mistake was to live in the Gulf region.