Monday, 7 June 2010

Blame the British

The government is worried that opprobrium towards British Petroleum due to their mishandling of the gulf oil spill is itself spilling over into general resentment of Britain and the British by the American people.

This blog's first reaction would be that if you want people to like you - don't pollute their coastline with crude oil.

But the situation is more complicated than that. This whole farrago started when the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile oil exploration rig, hit a high pressure pocket of methane sitting on top of the low pressure oil deposit they were expecting. The resultant blowback caught fire and eleven workers on the rig are missing presumed dead. The Deepwater Horizon was leased to BP, but actually owned by a Swiss/American company called Transocean Ltd. Their motto is: Never out of our depth, and to emphasize their expertise their web site is www.deepwater.com.

The Deepwater Horizon was not crewed by BP staff either. The drilling crew were from the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation of Montgomery County, Texas. They were the ones operating the drill, and if there's negligence, this is where to start looking. All the dead workers came from Anadarko. They were the ones actually working on the drill when it punctured the methane pocket.

Some reports indicate there were a small number of BP staff on the rig at the time, but they were in no way operating the rig or supervising operations.

However the media always wants a big name villain for its stories. Unknown behind-the-scenes technology providers won't do. And government wants to blame the deepest pockets. BP did, in the first few hours after the accident, point out that its involvement was tangential at best but this rapidly backfired as the media then portrayed them as trying to evade their responsibilities. The BP top brass must quickly have realised that the least bad option was to take the blame and lead the recovery.

US law does make it difficult for the large oil companies to duck liability for pollution events, even when contractors are to blame, and perhaps that's just as well otherwise every oil-related activity would be fronted by paper-thin shell companies, apart from booking the profits of course.

Meanwhile the American oil giants, ExxonMobil and Chevron have adopted a studiously reserved stance. On the one hand BP's downfall would be their gain, but on the other if the leak isn't fixed and deep offshore oil drilling is made illegal then they all lose out. BP has some big US government contracts, worth several billion dollars a year, and these could fall to the others if BP is cast out of America. Shell must be glad they don't have British in their name. In fact as their full name is Royal Dutch Shell they've pretty much got a get-out-of-jail-free card.

However, all this blaming the Brits, is just for the media. When is comes to the serious business of working out in the courts who is going to pay how much, that will be a whole other ballgame - and don't expect BP to be anywhere near as accommodating as they are on TV.

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