Oil Spill: A Damning Indictment of BP’s Safety Culture

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New BP CEO Bob Dudley isn’t happy with me. Well, not just me—all of the reporters who dug into BP’s past safety problems and raised questions about the mistakes the company made on the road to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. And he’s also mad at the environmentalists and scientists who raised the alarm in the wake of the spill, and the American politicians who relentlessly bashed BP and even the other oil company CEOs who not so subtly threw BP in front of the bus. As Dudley said in his first speech as BP boss:

[There was]… a great rush to judgment by a fair number of observers before the full facts could possibly be known, even from some in our industry. I watched graphic projections of oil swirling around the gulf, around Florida, across and around Bermuda to England – these appeared authoritative and inevitable. The public fear was everywhere.
We fully accept our share of responsibility but I hope for everyone’s sake that over the next month and years we can reach a balanced and informed judgement about what happened and what we need to learn.

It’s true that the worst-case scenarios of oil catching the Loop Current and winding its way around Florida to hit the East Coast didn’t happen—although that was due to fortunate ocean currents, not anything BP did. And we may have lucked out on the long-term environmental damage caused by the spill, at least on the coastline—although we won’t be able to confirm that for some time. But there should be no doubt that BP, in the years before the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, had severe safety problems related to an obsession over financial growth and cost cutting. And if you have doubts, read the new investigation put together by the nonprofit news website ProPublica and the PBS show Frontline:

The investigation found that as BP transformed itself into the world’s third largest private oil company it methodically emphasized a culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits. It acquired large companies that it could not integrate smoothly. Current and former workers and executives said the company repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills. Internal BP documents support these claims.A ProPublica analysis of state and federal records revealed that BP has fared far worse in the United States than the rest of the industry in terms of spills and serious safety violations.

ProPublica—which earlier reported in detail on BP’s disastrous failures at its Texas City refinery—found that BP had more spills, more accidents and more worker injuries than it’s peers in the industry:

BP’s workers also appear to be more at risk. In Alaska, it has had 52 worker-safety violations since 1990, compared with ConocoPhillips’ seven. Nationally, according to an extensive analysis of data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, BP had 518 safety violations over the last two decades, compared with 240 for Chevron and even fewer for its other competitors. Since those statistics were compiled, in 2009, OSA has announced 745 more violations at two BP refineries, one near Toledo, Ohio, and the other in Texas City, Texas, where 15 people were killed and 170 injured in a 2005 explosion.

It’s worth reading the entire piece—and check out the Frontline documentary “The Spill,” airing tonight