America’s justifiable fury with BP is degenerating into a broader attack on business
Jun 17th 2010
FOR over a month, Barack Obama watched the oil spill spread over the Gulf of Mexico with the same powerless horror as other Americans. Finally, lampooned by his countrymen for his impotence, he was spurred into action. He attacked the only available target—BP—and, to underline the seriousness with which he takes this problem, he gave his first Oval Office address on the subject.
The address got poor reviews; the attack on BP better ones. This week the firm bowed to pressure, and announced that it was, in effect, handing over $20 billion to the government to pay for compensation and clean-up, as well as cancelling the payment of any dividends this year and setting up a fund—of a mere $100m—to compensate unemployed oil workers.
This may do Mr Obama some good. Whether it will benefit America is more doubtful. Businessmen are already gloomy, depressed by the economy and nervous of their president’s attitude towards them. This episode will not encourage them.
There is good reason for Americans to be furious with BP. The authorities reckon that the oil may be flowing at a rate of 60,000 barrels a day—far more than the company estimated, and the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez every four days. Efforts to stem the toxic plume have met with only modest success (see briefing).
A permanent solution may be available in August, but only if the drilling of relief wells to intercept and plug the stricken one goes according to plan.
BP already had a miserable safety record in America. In 2005 an explosion at one of its refineries in Texas killed 15 people. In 2006 corrosion in its pipelines led to a sizeable spill on Alaska’s North Slope. Since then, regulators have often fined it for breaking safety standards. There are indications that BP’s approach to the drilling of the Macondo well was similarly slapdash. Engineering measures that might have prevented the calamity were not carried out, tests of safety equipment delayed. The firm’s emergency-response plan spoke of protecting the area’s walruses—an easy task, since there aren’t any—and consulting an ecologist who had died in 2005.
America has a well-developed system for getting companies to pay for the damage they do; and BP long ago accepted that it would pay in full. But that was never going to satisfy the country’s corporate bloodlust. An outfit called Seize BP has organised demonstrations in favour of the expropriation of BP’s assets in 50 cities. Over 600,000 people have supported a boycott of the firm on Facebook. Several of BP’s gas (petrol) stations have been vandalised.
The politicians, eager as ever to stay in tune with the nation, joined in. Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior, vowed to keep the government’s boot on BP’s neck. At one of the many recent hearings at which BP executives have been hauled over the coals, a Republican congressman suggested that the chairman of BP’s American arm should commit ritual suicide. Mr Obama said he was looking for arses to kick.
After the macho rhetoric came the demands for cash. Mr Obama decided to “inform” BP that it must put adequate funds to meet all compensation claims into an escrow account beyond its control, although he has no authority to do so. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, instructed it not to pay a dividend until all claims tied to the spill are settled. Her fellow Democrats in Congress are trying to raise BP’s liability retroactively—the sort of move America’s courts rightly frown on. Mr Salazar, on even thinner legal ice, suggested that the government would hold BP accountable not just for the harm directly done by the spill, but also for the jobs lost in the oil business thanks to the freeze on oil drilling in deep water that he himself has imposed.
Investors seem to be worried that the wrath of American officialdom will ruin BP. They have driven down its value by $89 billion since the well erupted, far in excess of all but the most dire forecasts of the ultimate costs of the spill. Corporate America, normally quick to resist government intrusion, has kept strangely silent, as though businessmen are afraid of the consequences of sticking their heads above the parapet.
The attack on BP seems to have paid off for the administration, in that the firm has caved in to most of its demands. Mr Obama’s swipes at the company have lent him an unfamiliar air of forcefulness. And, as everybody in Washington knows, so long as BP meets its commitments, government attempts to meddle in the firm’s management, much less seize its assets, will be rejected by the courts. So why not keep going?
For several reasons. The vitriol has a xenophobic edge: witness the venomous references to “British Petroleum”, a name BP dropped in 1998 (just as well that it dispensed with the name Anglo-Iranian Oil Company even longer ago). Vilifying BP also gets in the way of identifying other culprits, one of which is the government. BP operates in one of the most regulated industries on earth with some of the most perverse rules, subsidies and incentives. Shoddy oversight clearly contributed to the spill, and an energy policy which reduced the demand for oil would do more to avert future environmental horrors than fierce retribution.
Mr Obama is not the socialist the right claims he is (see article). He went out of his way, meeting BP executives on June 16th, to insist that he has no interest in undermining the company’s financial stability. But his reaction is cementing business leaders’ impression that he is indifferent to their concerns. If he sees any impropriety in politicians ordering executives about, upstaging the courts and threatening confiscation, he has not said so. The collapse in BP’s share price suggests that he has convinced the markets that he is an American version of Vladimir Putin, willing to harry firms into doing his bidding.
Nobody should underestimate the scale of BP’s mistake, nor the damage that it has caused. But if the president does not stand up for due process, he will frighten investors across the board. The damage to America’s environment is bad enough. The president risks damaging its economy too.