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BP oil spill. Macondo.

Oil spill? Sorry Guv, I just work here.

 “ I’m really really sorry for this accident. I really really regret that my car left the road, killing eleven people and causing massive environmental damage.  
  Do you take full responsibility? 
  Well, that’s a matter for the inquiry. 
  But you were driving the car were you not?
  Of course, but I wasn’t around when the key decisions were taken on the design of the car and the safety measures so I can’t really be held responsible for this terrible and tragic incident.
   Who is responsible. 
   Well, that’s a matter for the inquiry and we mustn’t pre-empt that in any way… I’d like to help, really, but my hands are tied”
    It looks like ‘Hapless Heyward’, as the boss of BP is known after his appearance before the US congressional energy committee inquiry into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, may get his wish.  He said he wanted his life back, and after last week’s performance he will assuredly get it –  minus his job.   It was a  dismal display, in which the BP CEO – one of the highest paid executives in Britain –  sounded evasive and a bit dim, like a middle ranking manager of a small engineering company rather that the leader of one of the greatest economic forces on the planet.  How many companies in the world could agree to pay out £20bn in compensation and then see their share price actually go up?  
   Mind you, I didn’t find the congressional hearing particularly edifying.   The sub-Paxman questioning by drawling and self-important congressmen.  Not so much grandstanding as an Olympic display of synchronised indignation for the benefit of the voters back home.  The inquisition was led by the marvellously sneering  Henry Arnold Waxman, Ca, a man Time Magazine once described the  as “the scariest guy in Washington”.  He certainly looked the part with his flaring nostrils and pitiless moustache.   The purpose was clearly not to get at the truth but, in President Obama’s phrase, to kick ass.  Heyward’s ass certainly made a target rich environment and the congressmen didn’t miss.  But the episode reminded me a little of the show trials that Stalin used to stage in the 1930s to humiliate political rivals. 
   The astonishing thing was the latent chauvinism that the affair uncovered on both sides of the Atlantic.   Special relationship?  You’d be pushed to tell, as the Americans laid into “British Petroleum” and the tabloid press in Britain ran peevish  headlines like the Daily Mail’s two classics:  “America’s ALWAYS tried to do down Britain” and “When disaster strikes, the US will NEVER take the blame”.    Really?  Did America try to do us down in the war fascism in the Second World War?    Okay, American companies didn’t exactly leap to take the blame for disasters like the Torrey Canyon or Piper Alpha, but there is a question of scale here: this is America’s worst ever environmental catastrophe
     Tory MPs practically accused President Obama of stealing the pensions of millions of elderly Brits and Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, came right out and accused Obama of being “anti-British”.    Wisely, David Cameron ignored appeals to “stand up for Britain” and kept his comments brief, unemotive and to the point.  In doing so, he rather got one over Barack Obama, whose comparison between the Macondo spillage and the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11 was just a little over the top.  The two episodes hardly compare either in body count or in international significance. 
   Nevertheless, this was an epic disaster and almost certainly avoidable.   BP knew this was a “nightmare well”  as email traffic confirmed.  It certainly looks as if they took risks because the reward was so high and the BP leadership was so remote from the well-head.    Tony Hayward’s “wasn’t me guv” attitude reminded me of the Wall Street CEOs who appeared at the congressional hearings into the financial disaster.   Yes they were sorry – terrible catastrophe…deep regrets…but they weren’t responsible for all those dodgy collateralised debt obligations because they weren’t around when they were introduced and anyway no one understood them them.    Like BP,  financial institutions were working at the limit of human comprehension, but no one asked whether this was safe just so long as the money was rolling in.   Deepwater Horizon is also reminiscent of the way politicians rationalised an illegal invasion of Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.      All those Labour leadership candidates insisting that they weren’t really around when the fateful decisions were made.  Or rather they were around but they didn’t think to say anything.

  But the the Macondo disaster could have wide ramifications for the future of world energy.  It was part of the drive to find new sources of oil deep beneath the surface of the earth.  Most of the easy-to-get oil in the world has already been exploited, and the rate of new discoveries has slowed to a crawl.  It was this that led leading businessmen like Richard Branson to declare, earlier this year, that we are about to reach “Peak Oil”, after which the black stuff will rapidly run out.  Branson said that the crunch would come within five years and that governments should be preparing now for the end of the oil age. 

   Now the idea Peak Oil has been  highly controversial ever since it was first forecast by early environmentalists in the 1970s and the attitude of governments and the oil industry has always been that new technology will come along and allow difficult oil to be extracted, either from far below the oceans or from deposits like tar sands in Canada.  But the Deepwater Horizon episode could be the moment when oil really does peak.  Like nuclear power, which stopped in its tracks after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1978, this could be the end for deep sea drilling, at least for the next two decades.
    On the principle of never allowing a good crisis to go  to waste, President Obama, has declared this the moment when America must wean itself off the black stuff and start looking seriously at renewable energy like wind and solar.  The halt to deep drilling will leave America even more dependent on hydrocarbons from the Middle East – hardly a comforting prospect given the march of Islamic fundamentalism.  Really, America has no choice but to go green now. Let’s hope the British government takes note and, unlike the BP boss, takes responsibility now instead of avoiding it later . 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


One thought on “Oil spill? Sorry Guv, I just work here.

  1. "American companies didn't exactly leap to take the blame for disasters like the Torrey Canyon or Piper Alpha, but there is a question of scale here: this is America's worst ever environmental catastrophe."A question of scale Iain? So the "scale" associated with the Piper, 167 DEATHS, through American Occidental's failure to observe proper health and safety procedures is less important? That's quite a statement. Their refusal to take responsibility isn't important? It wasn't a "catastrophe"? I really have heard or rather, read, it all now. Jo

    Posted by Anonymous | July 5, 2010, 9:57 am

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