We told you BP couldn’t be trusted

OIL SLICK  Directors of BPs London-based global board, including current CEO Tony Hayward, seem to be above justice when it comes to the firms work safety and environmental crimes.

OIL SLICK Directors of BP's London-based global board, including current CEO Tony Hayward, seem to be above justice when it comes to the firm's serial workplace safety and environmental crimes. But nice guys can (and do) kill you.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to end the “cosy relationship” between oil companies and US regulators in the light of the April 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster. He also condemned “the ridiculous spectacle” of oil executives “falling over each other to point the finger of blame,” the BBC and other media reported.

Federal regulators had, the president said, sometimes approved drilling plans based on the oil companies’ promises to use safe practices. The rule from now on, he said, would be “trust but verify.” For some though, this is too little, too late.

If more attention had been paid to BP’s deadly workplace safety record – the oil giant owns the well that continues to spew oil into the Gulf – then it would have been shockingly apparent that trust was never warranted.

A Center for Public Integrity analysis published on 16 May 2010 found refineries owned by the oil giant account for 97 per cent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety inspectors over the past three years.

This isn’t a matter of technical infringements. It is about corporate bad behaviour that could kill. In some instances the violations related to grievous failings that did actually kill, and kill a lot.

Hazards has been tracking BP’s safety record for years and the apparent impunity of the company’s decision makers. The disaster-prone London-based board generally escapes criticism from politicians in the US, UK and elsewhere, uses slick PR to fend off press attacks and has evaded all blame and punishment for a sequence of industrial and environmental catastrophes.

These board members are wealthy, respectable upstanding members of the community. They rub shoulders with the powerful – hell, they live in the same neighbourhoods, their kids go to the same schools. And they don’t die at work – they just make the decisions that consign others to an early grave.

Former CEO Lord John Browne was only brought down by a personal scandal; he escaped unscathed from the damning criticism spelled out in investigations after the 2005 Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 and injured 170 more. But despite official enquiry-determined culpability– he even signed off the company’s safety policy prior to the disaster – Lord Browne still enjoys a seat in the House of Lords, one of the UK’s two Houses of Parliament, and remains a government-appointed trustee of the Tate Gallery.

Lord Browne’s successor, Tony Hayward (pictured top), was BP’s second-in-command when Texas City exploded, and became chief executive in 2007. He has been in top management positions for over a decade, and was made an executive vice-president in 2002, the year BP received a then-record UK safety fine of £1m after being prosecuted by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for criminal safety offences at Scotland’s Grangemouth refinery. He “chairs the group operations risk committee (GORC) which oversees safety performance,” notes the company’s website.

BP’s website also spells out the practices “we implement in pursuit of our goal of ‘no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment’.”

It asserts: “Our commitment to safe, reliable and responsible operations starts with the group chief executive Tony Hayward and his leadership team: a commitment that filters down through the organization and is regularly communicated to all staff.”

On paper at least, responsibility for safety – and safety failings – goes right to the top.

There is now, tragically, another opportunity for the London-based board to be made to face up to that responsibility. Eleven workers died in the latest disaster linked to BP, when an explosion destroyed Tranocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on 20 April 2010. The rig was operated on behalf of  BP. White House officials have indicated the president will set up a commission to investigate the disaster. They say the panel will also examine industry practices and the government’s role in an incident that has seen oil spewing into the Gulf since the rig exploded.

President Obama would establish a presidential commission by executive order, White House officials said. The officials, who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity, said the commission would be similar to panels created to investigate the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

It would also study oil industry practices, rig safety, regulation and governmental oversight, including the functions of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) – the agency responsible for regulating offshore oil drilling, but which is also responsible for administering oil leases and with that government revenue from oil.

BRITISH POLLUTERS  Environmental group Greenpeace rebranded BPs global HQ in London on 20 May.

BRITISH POLLUTERS Environmental group Greenpeace rebranded BP's global HQ in London on 20 May.

A congressional hearing this month was told BP was aware of equipment problems aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig hours before the explosion. The House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee said documents and company briefings suggested that well owner BP, rig owner Transocean and Halliburton, which made the cement casing for the well, ignored tests in the hours before the explosion that indicated faulty safety equipment.

President Obama clarified the position on 22 May: “First and foremost, what led to this disaster was a breakdown of responsibility on the part of BP and perhaps others, including Transocean and Halliburton,” he said.

These are not just serious issues, they are life and death issues. Refineries and rigs explode and workers die, families are bereaved. If board members can accept the bonuses and fat pay cheques when things go right, they must also accept the consequences when things go wrong. That means an appearance in court and, if found guilty, a lengthy spell in jail. This is not about blame. It is about justice.

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