British Petroleum (BP) portrayed itself this past decade as an oil company investing in renewable sources of clean energy for a “Beyond Petroleum” future. BP had many people convinced that it was a very different kind of oil company, but the catastrophic spill this spring in the Gulf of Mexico is shedding light on the true nature of this transnational corporation.
The BP spill jeopardizes the entire northern coastline of the Gulf with its outstanding fish and shellfish productivity. Seventy percent of the U.S. shrimp harvest comes from the Gulf. This oil spill could exceed that of the 11-million-gallon spill by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 and deliver a devastating blow to economies from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.
BP is the embodiment of mindless growth, an organization that puts profits ahead of people and the planet. Its practices run counter to the prudent economic policies promoted by the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy. BP in fact provides a case study of a corporation fixated on unlimited growth in oil consumption while pretending to be focused on sustainable living.
Prize-winning economist Kenneth Boulding could have used BP as the poster child for his critique of cowboy or frontier economics (see The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth). In contrast to an urgently needed spaceship economy for a planet of 6.8 billion people, BP’s cowboy economy exploits natural resources with abandon as if there were no such thing as peak oil. Maximization of throughput and growth of oil usage regardless of consequences underpin BP’s strategy, as it seeks oil in every nook and cranny of our planet and takes risks that jeopardize the well-being of millions.
BP’s advertising slogan “Beyond Petroleum” suggested that the company was going to move rapidly away from dirty oil, cut energy waste, and support clean transportation policies. BP pushed aggressively ahead with massive pursuit of fossil fuel, and rather than spend profits on clean energy investments, the company used $50 billion this past decade buying back its own stock.
Accidents and Sloppiness
In March 2005, explosions shook the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. The CBS program 60 Minutes investigated the accident and found evidence that BP ignored warning after warning.
BP’s cavalier attitude toward safety revealed itself once again last fall when it opposed the Interior Department’s plan to require better safety measures on offshore drilling rigs. On September 12, 2009, Richard Morrison, Vice President of BP America for Gulf of Mexico Operations, wrote to the Department objecting to the new safety plan, saying “…we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations… We believe the industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs… have been and continue to be very successful.” BP’s “successful” record includes 41 deaths and over 300 injuries between 2001 and 2007.
BP’s oil accidents and spillage are nothing new. In March of 2006, BP’s badly corroded pipeline in Alaska ruptured, sending hundreds of thousand of gallons of crude oil into the Arctic Ocean. The House Energy and Commerce Committee found in its 2007 hearing a mountain of evidence that BP’s cost-cutting maintenance had led to the spill. Once again last year in Alaska, BP spilled oil from its Prudhoe Bay pipeline.
Hypocritical and Irresponsible Decisions
This year BP announced the closure of its solar panel facility in Frederick, Maryland. BP says it is going to relocate in Asia. However, BP has also approached the U.S. Department of Energy for a taxpayer loan to build a central solar facility at the Brookhaven Lab on Long Island. What do actions like these say about BP’s community values? Is it ethical for BP to pursue federal solar grants, given its major disinvestment in solar energy in America?
Perhaps an even more disturbing demonstration of BP’s environmentally unsound tactics comes from its choice to route an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea right through a national park in the nation of Georgia. This move (a European corporation defacing a European national park) is akin to a U.S. oil company running a pipeline up the Yellowstone River smack dab in the middle of our first National Park.
The Best Bet? Banning BP
On March 31 President Obama launched an offshore drilling program, encompassing 167 million acres. In so doing he embraced the aggressive drilling program called for by the 2008 Republican National Convention and surprised many of his supporters who thought his administration would usher in a new era of clean energy. Last year the Interior Department waived the environmental impact assessment requirement for BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling. Now the question is whether the Obama administration will treat BP like Goldman Sachs as “too big to fail.”
Some like Michael Brune, the new executive director of the Sierra Club, have called for separation of oil and state. This makes sense as an initial step, because the oil industry cannot police itself. But much more dramatic action is necessary to break the oil industry’s stranglehold on governments worldwide if we are going to achieve a prosperous, steady state economy.
Given the current massive BP oil spill and the history of BP’s malfeasance with repeated pollution debacles, it is time to deny BP the right to do business in the United States. The track record shows that BP:
- is lacking in basic moral principles;
- has perpetrated a fraudulent advertising campaign suggesting that it is better than other oil companies;
- has failed to take safety and environmental responsibilities seriously; and
- is unwilling to consider limits to growth in the fossil fuel industry.
BP is an obstacle to a sustainable, prosperous economy – an obstacle that we can no longer afford to tolerate.