This week UK magazine the New Statesman announced its ranking of ’20 green heroes and villains.’ Among the ‘panel of environmental experts’ judging the awards was John Browne, the UK peer whose reputation was earned at the helm of global petrochemicals giant BP.
Lord Browne may be especially well qualified to assess environmental villainy. In 2007, environmental crimes committed under his leadership at BP attracted the “largest criminal fine ever for air violations” handed down by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The firm is still on probation for the incidents EPA said had “terrible consequences for people and the environment”.
Under Lord Browne’s rule, BP didn’t restrict its criminal activities to the USA. In January 2002, it had the unhealthy distinction of being the first firm in Britain to receive a £1m fine for safety crimes, relating to offences committed at Scotland’s Grangemouth oil refinery that put both the workforce and the public at risk.
At the time the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) acknowledged: “The court has confirmed, by the high fine imposed today, that BP must employ the highest standards of management of safety, health and environment to prevent major incidents. Only good fortune avoided fatalities and serious injuries.”
The good fortune ran out when BP’s Texas City refinery exploded in March 2005, killing 15 and injuring 170. A BP-commissioned inquiry into the tragedy noted “BP’s failure to fully and comprehensively implement across BP’s US refineries the lessons from previous serious accidents, including the process incidents that occurred at BP’s facility in Grangemouth, Scotland in 2002.” A second, official, report noted the company had a “corporate blindspot” on health and safety.
Since Grangemouth, BP has bagged the USA’s highest ever workplace safety fine – twice, in 2005 and 2009, both related to the Texas City disaster. The first was for neglecting safety, and the second was for neglecting over a period of years to remedy hundreds of serious safety failings identified after the blast, creating the potential for a further disaster.
BP is an organisation where the London-based chief executive signs off the global safety policy, a London-based committee chaired by the BP chief executive oversees health and safety in BP operations worldwide, and a London-based global board makes the resource and policy decisions that determine the global safety culture.
Most of the above offences occurred on Lord Browne’s watch. But despite running a criminal operation – or at least an operation with proven criminal tendencies – Lord Browne and his former charge, from which he resigned in 2007, have been celebrated rather than condemned.
On 9 November 2009, Lord Browne was appointed by the UK government to lead an investigation into university funding. He has for some time been a Trustee of the Tate Gallery – a prestigious appointment that requires the approval of the Prime Minister and which came after the Texas City disaster.
Hazards magazine has consistently questioned why Lord Browne has not faced the courts for his role at the head of BP as it polluted, killed and collected penalties for a series of safety and environmental crimes. It argues Lord Browne should perhaps be slopping out, not cashing in.
And as Lord Browne remains the unquestioned darling of the UK establishment and government ministers, the firm itself appears to be getting an easy ride too.
In August 2003, two weeks after a quietly published HSE list of prosecutions showed BP’s record £1m penalty for safety crimes at Scotland’s Grangemouth refinery at the top of the year’s penalties league table, HSE issued a press release, noting “BP Grangemouth is one 20 companies from across Europe who received an award in recognition of outstanding and innovative contributions” on workplace safety. No mention of BP’s recent safety failings at the refinery appeared in the HSE release.
It was a pattern of small stick/large carrot later to be repeated in more desperate circumstances. On 19 May 2005 – less than two months after the tragedy at Texas City – HSE choose to showcase BP on its website, in a news release and at a business conference to “highlight the benefits that director leadership brings both to the health and safety of the employees and to the business.”
This was at the time an insult to the dead and bereaved of Texas City. To continue promoting BP’s dysfunctional leadership as an exemplar for a further four and a half years, is a travesty. It shows the UK does not have a health and safety watchdog to advocate for and protect workers.
It has instead a lapdog with neither the resources nor the will to tackle dangers in the workplace, and whose top management feels more comfortable protecting directors than the workers it is supposed to serve.
There is a malaise afflicting BP. But far from offering a remedy, HSE’s craven leadership is actively encouraging a culture of corporate complacency.
Under pressure from Hazards magazine, HSE in November 2009 removed the BP “director leadership” case history from its website.
Pulling the BP director leadership case history from the HSE website is a start, but only came after years of HSE blithely ignoring all evidence of the serious, engrained, safety failings at BP’s London HQ and direct requests for it to remove the case history.
A 20 November 2009 letter from Hazards to HSE chief executive, Geoffrey Podger, notes: “In the light of the latest OSHA action against BP, it is beholden on HSE to provide assurances to the UK public that suitable and sufficient management systems and enforcement oversight are in place to prevent similar serious, extremely numerous and potentially disastrous ‘wilful’ safety breaches in the UK.”
It adds: “The OSHA charges raise serious concerns about the priority given to safety by BP wherever it operates; safety is a matter managed globally by the company and managed from the UK. The audit system overseeing the company’s safety standards worldwide is a global system; the system that failed so grievously in the US is the system BP relies upon in the UK.”
The letter concludes: “The management systems that failed so disastrously in Texas City – and continue to fail to the present day, according to the OSHA charge sheet – are the same systems employed in the UK, governed by the same people in the same company. As mentioned previously, this is happening on your patch, on your watch.”
In a written response, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger said: “In fact we don’t discuss our relations with individual companies with third parties.”
It is a response that bears striking similaries with that made by a BP spokesperson, asked about the decision to pull the BP director leadership case history from the HSE website. “I wouldn’t comment on one third party commenting to another third party about us,” he said.
Until HSE marches into the BP boardroom and demands the firm pays as much regard to the price of a life as it does to the price of oil, the organisation charged with policing the UK’s criminal safety law is parading its institutional impotence to businesses everywhere.
For now, the only buck that stops at the boardroom is the kind that goes in a wallet.