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writing for godot

Five Realities Impugn the Method in BP’s Latest PR Madness

Written by Robert S. Becker   
Tuesday, 20 August 2013 11:58
All of three years ago, five-million barrels of Gulf crude oil, made more poisonous by adding toxic dispersant, redefined the meaning of marine pollution. Now, its brand badly tarnished, BP’s latest CEO, Robert Dudley, dumps its latest sludge, a slick concoction of chutzpah and subterfuge. Much darker, very unlike the botched $100 million ad whitewash, promising that BP “will get it done. We will make this right”?

Now, the world’s pollution champion reinforces why federal prosecutors won’t sweat when linking BP’s chronic “lack of business integrity” to staggering negligence sentences. BP’s frenzied chicanery, however, is not without stratagem or context. Acting as if the culpable decide when liability payments end, the BP syndicate openly stonewalls on contracted obligations, thus dumping two growing epidemics, in public health and Gulf restoration, on everyone else. Just as mixing in the dispersant Corexit increases oil contamination 52 times, this reckless, high-rolling oil delinquent dispatches its latest PR campaign from hell.

Though fuming over its “punitive” banishment from federal oil bidding contracts, BP underlines the bad faith that caused this exile by threats to renege on stipulated debts while promoting a snitch hotline to dig up scores of claims BP alone deems “fraudulent.” Thus does the unrepentant sludge-slinger reinvent itself as the great victim of its own infamy. However nasty, the gall here is revealing: having exchanged big assets for big penalties, shamed its brand and drove away gas sales since ’10, BP appears trapped between underestimating current spill liabilities and an epic trial that will determine earth-shaking payments for Clean Water violations.

Tone-deafness bespeaks desperation, though such industry misconduct is as predictable as the crude leaking still from the exploded rig, along with thousands of aging oil platforms and countless punctures across the Gulf basin. Why not duplicate Exxon stonewalling, defiant still over a final, unpaid $92 million recovery debt from its Alaska spill 25 years ago, when Bush I was president?

Wayward Hayward Redux

The silver-tongued Dudley reprises Tony Hayward's gaffe-ridden legacy behind 2010’s media punching bag. Hayward simply overlooked BP’s own explosion had taken 11 real lives before whining, “I'd like my life back.” Moral credibility gone, tech savvy then evaporated, "The oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes.” And worst of all, redefining understatement for all time, “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." Modest are top BP brain cells, suffering one imagines from repeated, post-disaster head banging. Only the super-profitable oil patch survives such malfeasance.

Likewise, Dudley absurdly rails against BP’s alleged overpayment for “fraud” so great it’s just “not good for America.” Translate “not good for America” as “very bad for BP,” as BP and America join as wronged parties. Does withholding cash from sick workers not put Dudley in Hayward company? Then, breaking new ground, Dudley declaims, “The Gulf has bounced back really well. And I’d like to think that we played a big role. People who lead you to believe that the Gulf of Mexico is an environmental Armageddon—I don’t think have been there.”

Really? Note Armageddon isn’t denied, just misinformed schemers. How about Prof. Paul W. Sammarco, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, whose comprehensive Marine Pollution Bulletin presents hard science and conclusions: accumulated “oil-related contaminations” call “into question the timing of decisions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reopen gulf fisheries after the spill.” So, Dud-ley, pass that gumbo of cancer-related “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” spiced with volatile organic compounds that impair “immune and nervous systems.” No wonder Corexit is banned in BP’s Great Britain.

Or consider the big scientific picture from fearless, top marine toxicologist, Riki Ott: “oil companies are polluting our air, poisoning our drinking water and land, poisoning people and communities across the country, collapsing ocean ecosystems from Alaska's Prince William Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, and even altering our climate in pursuit of profit, while leaving people and communities with the costs.” Gee, is that all?

Yet Dudley is perplexed that Americans censure the oil industry. Okay, figure in gargantuan oil spills, huge penalties, outrageous tax subsidies, unconscionable stonewalling, and that over 26 died on BP jobs since ’05, some by manslaughter. With that record, no wonder BP rears up in both the court of public opinion and the court assessing epic justice. Unfortunately, reality claims its legacy, too, per these five categories:

1) PR Wars to Offset Litigation Woes. BP claims “irreparable harm” from its federal bidding ban, assailing a “punitive, arbitrary, capricious” EPA. Yet must the agency cite much beyond BP’s guilty admissions, with a $4.5 billion penalty for 11 counts of felony manslaughter, one count of felony obstruction of Congress and violations of the Clean Water Act? Most unnerving to BP is whether Clean Water fines total $5 billion or top $21 billion, plus the $65 billion charged already for clean-up, damage liabilities (if paid), and criminal fines. Were BP found guilty of “gross negligence,” then a record penalty dwarfs everything prior.

2) Science Proving Oil Spills are Forever. The Gulf spill re-dramatizes the magnitude and duration of immeasurable “externalities,” in cost and damage, when one cost-slashing malefactor invites hazards beyond imagination. The ready lesson? Not only must decades pass to finalize damage, subsequent dead zones outlast assessments. Dr. Ott’s rule of thumb is 50 years to “mitigate,” conceding ecosystems are never the same.

A striking $20+ billion penalty would broadcast what standard-operating oil patch negligence costs. Here’s a survey (from a libertarian site) describing how oil sludges don’t go away. Another site details toxicity long after a 1969 New England oil tanker spewed “only” 189,000 gallons. Woods Hole Oceanographic details high sediment toxicity that impedes marsh grass, fiddler crabs and organisms 41 years later. Of course, BP’s greatest fear is less about environmental damage decades off (it will deflect) than vast medical liabilities when toxic spills are linked to human disease and mortality.

3) Wider Pressures Squeezing Big Oil: Even for BP, $90 billions in liability for this “modest” spill is nothing to sneeze at. Its latest threats to deny debts are more than heartless greed, suggesting BP dreads the total of its settlement payments. Further, as the Economist subtitled its ominous industry-wide survey, “The day of the huge integrated international oil company is drawing to a close.”

Forced asset sales reduced BP’s capitalization and increase chances for a take-over (and inscrutable liabilities discount value). BP escaped a bad Russian deal, faces older-well production depletion, and reserves (7 million barrels) look weak against both Exxon (25 million) and colossal national oil companies (NOCs). Big oil didn’t leverage African exploration and faces profit squeezes from shale oil/gas production services lost to rivals. Reserves are harder to fine, as NOCs take more control, often hiring independent contractors.

4) Cheap Natural Gas, Energy Efficiencies and Oil Alternatives. Fracking horrors aside, natural gas booms advance gas vehicles, not just cars, trucks, buses, and delivery vans, but trains and container ships. Innovative technology breakthroughs promise new and better fuel types, efficiencies, and energy alternatives. As petrol prices rise, conservation kicks in, and China introduced stringent fuel targets of 34 mpg by 2015 and 47 mpg by 2020. If vehicles gain 2-4% more efficiency, Citibank projects by ’20 four million barrels less daily demand. Hybrids, or any vehicles getting 40+ mpg, are bad news for big oil.

5) Must Petrol Prices Automatically Rise? Oil giants assume larger global population guarantees high demand. Yet even before the Great Recession, driving mileage here was down and 50% under 19 bypass driving licenses; the average new car costs $31K, with higher insurance, repairs and parking costs. Debt-ridden millions under 30, favor ride-sharing, ZIP cars, public transit, even bikes. Culturally, mobile wi-fi options enhance public transit commuting: now, electrons, not jalopies, “network” life choices. All in all, mounting negatives could injure big oil growth, especially for weaker players like BP. Is that why BP appears to be over-reacting, or is today’s CEO no savvier than the wayward Hayward retired in disgrace soon after the 2010 spill? your social media marketing partner
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