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Leading article The Week

Not British

Search any official document published by BP plc, the oil giant now battling not only to cap the Mexican Gulf oil spillage but to save itself from a terminal collapse of investor confidence, and you will not find anywhere the words ‘British Petroleum’.

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

Search any official document published by BP plc, the oil giant now battling not only to cap the Mexican Gulf oil spillage but to save itself from a terminal collapse of investor confidence, and you will not find anywhere the words ‘British Petroleum’.

Search any official document published by BP plc, the oil giant now battling not only to cap the Mexican Gulf oil spillage but to save itself from a terminal collapse of investor confidence, and you will not find anywhere the words ‘British Petroleum’. The full version of the company name was dropped more than a decade ago, when the merger with US oil giant Amoco turned it into a transnational conglomerate with the green-tinged but much-mocked slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

One would not know this to listen to Barack Obama, who misses no opportunity to denounce ‘British Petroleum’ for the disaster which befell an American-owned, Korean-built rig leased by BP’s US subsidiary. It is as if a British pirate expedition had sailed over and drilled a wildcat well. As public anger rises, ‘British Petroleum’ is getting the blame. It is said in some quarters that Britain is now more unpopular in America than at any time since 1776.


Transocean, the owner of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig, relocated for tax reasons first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland. Halliburton, the controversial Texan firm once chaired by George W. Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney, had a hand in the ‘cementing’ processes that failed to protect the rig against explosion. The US Coast Guard service has some explaining to do about whether its firefighting techniques made the subsequent containment exercise more difficult. The federal government’s actions in mobilising resources to minimise environmental damage have been judged by 60 per cent of recent Gallup poll respondents to be ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Americans’ judgment on their own President’s response has also been harsh — so it is understandable that he wishes to direct their ire to a different target, preferably a foreign one. Yet when judgment is reached about this catastrophe, blame for the explosion itself seems likely to be apportioned between all the corporate actors and the forces of nature itself. Blame for the time taken to find an effective method of capping the leak will rest with BP, which accepts that responsibility, but is also down to the limits of technology. no operation of this kind has ever been carried out at such an ocean depth.

There is no defending Tony Hayward, head of BP, who has made matters worse for his company by offering ill-judged remarks for US media and politicians to pounce upon. But the US government has not sought to take over from BP in the capping operation, because it knows there is nothing it could do that BP is not already doing, with every resource at its disposal and at extreme cost to its shareholders. Instead, the White House is talking about bringing criminal prosecution against the company.

How convenient it will be if the most prominent executives lined up to be prosecuted — Hayward perhaps among them — turn out to be British: that would appeal to a certain element of American xenophobia, so much at odds with its commitment to free trade.

BP is in deep trouble in the Gulf, and is doing its best to face up to its legitimate responsibilities. But President Obama’s use of the word ‘British’ to attack the company misses the mark in a way that does no credit to the White House. Obama has manifestly struggled to respond to this catastrophe — this is a matter between him and the American electorate. He might come across as more convincing if he were to recognise a fundamental truth: that this is a environmental tragedy with many players where no one party is predominantly to blame.


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