As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico begins to reach biblical proportions, with no end in sight, people are struggling to find ways to deal with their outrage. Depending on their dispositions, people will respond differently. Some, like the The Raging Grannies will rant. They have taken to the road chanting “Halliburton and BP You Suck.” Others with a more analytical bent will look for explanations. Keith Harrington writes in Grist that BP is behaving like a textbook psychopath. Citing Dr. Robert Hare in the documentary film The Corporation, he lists the following psychopathic characteristics from the DSM-IV that could easily be applied to the renegade corporation:
- Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
- Reckless disregard for the safety of others
- Deceitfulness, repeated lying and conning others for profit
- Incapacity to experience guilt
- Failure to correspond to social norms regarding lawful behavior
Alas, the anger at BP has become so widespread that it has almost become an issue that both parties in Congress can agree on. Although that didn’t stop Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (a Democrat, by the way) from supporting Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s attempt to strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emission. Of course, Murkowski is well-known to be against all living things except those that invest in fossil fuel companies. But Landrieu’s unflagging support for oilmen despite what they have recently done to her state might come right out of the obsessive-compulsive chapter in the same diagnostic manual cited above. Fortunately, the bill was defeated.
Be that as it may, the oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, as do the growing revelations of irresponsibility and misconduct at BP. You could almost say that they are going hand in hand, though it might be hard to say which is more sickening. An article by Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson recently posted on ProPublica based on a number of leaked (no pun intended) internal BP documents, shows a long term pattern of blatant disregard for environmental health and safety in deference to profitability, seemingly at every turn. The report lists examples where “management flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured or harassed employees not to report problems, and cut short or delayed inspections in order to reduce production costs. Executives were not held accountable for the failures, and some were promoted despite them.” Cited reports warned senior managers that a serious accidents could occur if things didn’t change.
Taken together with e-mails from employees, reports from local investigations and lawsuits, the reports portray a systematic pattern of negligence.
The story heard recently on 60 Minutes by a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon, that told about how the company ignored warning signs and malfunctioning safety equipment in their rush to get the oil out, apparently was not a new one. Similar actions were described in a 2001 report which spoke of emergency shutdown equipment being neglected a la BOP. Also reported were stories of workers who raised concerns about safety being intimidated, falsification of safety inspection reports, and instances of managers cutting costs in dangerous ways like running critical safety equipment until it failed, rather than replacing it on a maintenance schedule. The 200,000 gallon 2006 Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill was likely the result of this type of practice.
The story of Stuart Sneed, who was forced out of the company after causing a delay on the Alaskan pipeline construction due to safety concerns, is perhaps emblematic. Colleagues described Sneed as perhaps the most meticulous inspector on the massive project. Shortly after Sneed left, a high pressure gas line that he had also raised concerns about blew up, flying nearly 1000 feet into the air.
Perhaps this will serve to answer, in part, BP CEO Tony Hayward’s question, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” The Department of Justice will decide over the next few months whether or not the actions of BP and its leadership were criminal.
Of all the oil companies, BP is the one taking the heat right now. But by now, most of them have been in the headlines with similar problems at one time or another” Chevron-Texaco for its catastrophic spill in Ecuador, Shell for human rights violations in Nigeria and Exxon-Mobil for the Valdez incident as well as its under-the-table funding, along with Koch Industries, of climate change disinformation. There are countless other examples.
Perhaps we are ready for a sea change. We have tried deregulation and it didn’t work. We tried letting these companies police themselves in the hope that “enlightened self-interest” would drive them to do the right thing. We are seeing now, that this does not work. It is in the nature of business to take risks. Indeed, most businesses would not exist without that element. But those risks, can, and will at times expose the public to significant harm, and that is where the policing power of government must be applied.
RP Siegel is the co-author of Vapor Trails, a novel about the inner workings of an oil company that finds itself embroiled in environmental disaster.
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