Friday, June 11, 2010

Time Out: Yes, I'm Mad as Hell!

Tony Hayward, as the chief executive officer of BP plc, heads the world’s fourth-largest corporation (and the third-largest energy company after Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil). That puts him squarely in the realm of world leaders, not shoe clerks. Indeed, Hayward has negotiated mineral rights with presidents and potentates all over the world. Not bad for a man who started out at BP as an oil rig geologist. He’s no dummy, despite his stupid-ass comments and stonewalling on the April 20 Gulf of Mexico oil-rig disaster. And he is not likely to be any less disingenuous when he and other energy executives appear in Washington, D.C., June 17 to testify about the mess.
I have interviewed corporate executives in my years as a journalist. I do not believe these people routinely lie. And they are not stupid. Well, when a fifth-grader says the dog ate his homework, I guess that counts as a lie. When a crook is confronted with the evidence of his theft, his natural response is to plead ignorance. So I guess that’s also a lie. Ok, yeah, corporate executives do lie, sometimes famously, but lies are not a natural response executives of publicly held corporations ought to make in unpleasant or uncomfortable situations. One of the smartest answers an executive could give when asked if his company has done something bad should be to say “I don’t know.” Yes, it is a lame-dick answer, but which is worse, being stupid, or being a liar? Hayward has so far chosen against taking the high ground.
Speaking of the ecological and economic disaster the encroaching oil leak is creating, Hayward famously told USA Today, "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives." Now Hayward is a well-educated native speaker of the English language, and even allowing for the British propensity to understatement, referring to this as “massive disruption” is like referring to World War II as a military skirmish. Even worse, however, in the same article, Hayward is quoted as saying, "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back.” I am willing to bet my next Social Security check that the 11 men who died as a result of the rig explosion would like to have their lives back too. I’d bet those who survived but are still traumatized by the blast would like to have their lives back. I’d bet the families and friends of all those folks, as well as the families of Gulf and coastal fishermen and others who depend upon an oil-free environment for their livelihoods would like to get their lives back as well.
As I write this screed, BP says it aims to start burning some of the oil it is able to retrieve from the surface of the Gulf. Oh fine; we already killed off the biosphere of the Gulf region with tar balls and waterborne toxins still surging up from the broken undersea well pipe. Now let’s go ahead and kill off what’s left with airborne toxins from uncontrolled burning. Obviously, whoever comes up with these brilliant notions, while days go by without pursuing even the most fundamental common-sense responses, must be on some kind of methamphetamine IV. I smell “lawyers” in the brilliance of BP’s reactions so far.
Before this gets any more ridiculous, and without waiting for Washington to figure out which asses to kick instead of which to kiss, and in addition to the Henry VI approach of "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," I have some suggestions on things we can do to end this crap. Keep in mind that BP is not “just” an energy company. And even though BP shares have sunk in value, the real value of BP’s underlying assets – that is the value of BP properties if they were sold today on eBay, for example – is still an awesome amount of money by any standard. So:
1. One of the first responses is already under way on stock markets, where BP shares have lost at least 60 percent of their value since the April 20 explosion. As investors dump their shares, the prospects of long-term credit damage to BP in having to pay for the cleanup and related lawsuits has even spooked the institutions that hedge their investments with credit-default swaps. BP has a first-quarter dividend payout due in a week or so. Chances are good that more than 15 million British pensioners are going to suffer the impact on their payouts as well, as BP holdings are a large part of pension-fund portfolios in the corporation’s home country. Sorry, folks.
2. Accountability has obviously not been a useful tool against BP thus far. Even before the oil-rig blowout, BP was the worst offender of all corporations in the United States in terms of its safety record, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA had already accused BP of “willful violation” of its rules. Not counting the 11 deaths in the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP had more work-related fatalities than any other company in the United States over the past decade, OSHA records show. Survivors of the Gulf of Mexico explosion have gone on record about the shoddy safety practices at that specific drilling site. But BP has oil and energy-exploration operations under way all over the world. BP public relations hacks have Hayward telling the world the company always puts safety first and foremost. Bullshit. Governments can, by executive order, have all those operations nationalized and shut down. Do it.
3. One way or another, United States taxpayers will be paying for the aftermath for many years. No matter how much BP may eventually be forced to pay toward the cost, it won’t be enough. Since BP is not, strictly speaking, a U.S. corporation (when taking into account the holdings that are part of the London-based BP corporate empire), let’s start with nationalizing all the U.S. assets of BP. By “all the U.S. assets,” I mean real estate, leaseholdings on exploration and exploitation within the territorial United States, hardware, pipe, storage tanks and vessels, office furnishings, toilet paper – all of it.
There are probably other steps that could be taken, but these three, I think, would be a good start.