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BP back home: Sympathy for the devil

Logo at BP headquarters in London

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Today, the Obama Administration said it was vital to restore a ban on offshore drilling after a federal appeals court struck it down. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to issue a revised moratorium.
If you had to name the most unpopular corporation doing business in the U.S. today, chances are you'd settle on the one responsible for the moratorium. And the historic oil spill that preceded it. BP's name is now forever identified with the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. But back home in Britain, there's quite a bit more sympathy. We asked European bureau chief Stephen Beard to find out why.


Stephen Beard: Last week, Britain's Tate Art Gallery threw a party for BP to thank the oil giant for its 20 years of sponsorship. But a handful of protesters created a bit of a splash in the oil giant's backyard. They dumped half a dozen cans of thick brown liquid all over the gallery steps. Partygoers and Passersby were shocked, baffled, outraged.

Man: This is a very bad publicity stunt! I disapprove of this.

BP still has many friends in Britain and it's well regarded by the general public, says oil analyst Chris Skrebowski.

Chris Skrebowski: It's been thought of as a decent, well-run company with a good environmental record, a good social record. And therefore something to be proud of.

But this was the company behind a string of American disasters. The Prudhoe Bay spill; the Texas City Refinery Fire, and now Deepwater Horizon. Critics say former chief executive Lord Browne created all these disasters with relentless cost-cutting. Tom Bower is author of "Oil Money Politics and Power."

Tom Bower: Amongst the costs he dramatically cut were the costs of maintenance and safety and releasing many hundreds of engineers.

Bower says a maniacal ambition drove Browne. He wanted to displace Exxon-Mobil and make BP the biggest oil company in the world. Instead, he says, Browne left behind a disaster zone.

Bower: BP was really always on a knife-edge, always cutting corners, and to an extent it was a maverick corporation, shooting from the hip.

And yet Britain's biggest offshore operator has a pretty good safety record here. How come?

News report audio: Approaching the scene of the disaster early this morning a thick column of smoke was rising thousands of feet into the air above the blazing platform.

Twenty two years ago, a gas leak on an American platform off Britain's Coast caused the world's worst offshore disaster. One hundred and sixty seven workers on the Piper Alpha rig died in the fire. Much tougher regulation ensued. Malcolm Webb speaks for British offshore operators. He says Piper Alpha...

Malcolm Webb: ...took us into an entirely different direction as regards safety and the management of our resources in the offshore.

Britain split up licensing of operators from safety monitoring, unlike in the U.S. And another critical difference. No drilling operator ever gets a license here now without a meticulous safety assessment showing.

Webb: That he is operating that installation so as to reduce to the lowest extent practicable the risks to human life and to the environment through oil spill.

BP admits it never performed assessments on any of its U.S. wells because the U.S. government never required that. Webb wonders this -- why the U.S. did not learn any lessons from Piper Alpha? After all, Occidental Petroleum, an American company, owned and operated the rig.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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