June 5, 2010

A Global 500 Criminal Enterprise

As the worst environmental disaster in United States history entered its 45th day, some progress was at last made in capturing a portion of the thousands of barrels of oil gushing from the former Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico.  The containment cap that is now in place is not, however, a permanent solution, and a long term answer to the stream of poison fouling U.S. southern coastal waters remains to be found.

Meanwhile, as required by law, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that well owner British Petroleum (BP) would face both civil and criminal probes into the events surrounding the blowout.  The truth of the matter is, however, that not only does BP have a record of outright criminal behavior involving the price manipulation of propane and oil, but a long history of serious environmental and safety problems:
After BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery blew up in 2005, killing 15 workers, the company vowed to address the safety shortfalls that caused the blast.

The next year, when a badly maintained oil pipeline ruptured and spilled 200,000 gallons of crude oil over Alaska’s North Slope, the oil giant once again promised to clean up its act.

In 2007, when Tony Hayward took over as chief executive, BP settled a series of criminal charges, including some related to Texas City, and agreed to pay $370 million in fines. “Our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law,” the company said then, pledging to improve its “risk management.”

Despite those repeated promises to reform, BP continues to lag other oil companies when it comes to safety, according to federal officials and industry analysts. Many problems still afflict its operations in Texas and Alaska, they say. Regulators are investigating a whistle-blower’s allegations of safety violations at the
Atlantis, one of BP’s newest offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, 97% of the worst cases of oil industry regulation non-compliance are found at British Petroleum refineries, and BP's transgressions far outstrip those of its peers.  In the last three years alone, BP had 760 egregious, willful violations, while during the same period, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips each 8, Citgo had two, and Exxon - the company responsible for the Exxon Valdez disaster - had only one.  As Jon Stewart noted on the June 1st edition of The Daily Show, "Exxon could get seventy times the egregious, willful, safety violations [it had] and still be 90% safer than BP."

As a company that averaged $65 million in profit - not revenue, PROFIT - every day in the first quarter of 2010, it's clear that British Petroleum has simply decided that the $730 million in fines and settlements it has paid over the past few years is nothing more than an administrative expense, essentially no more alarming or reprehensible when it comes to its financial statements than salaries, pensions or depreciation. BP is - literally - a Fortune Global 500 criminal enterprise; one that breaks laws in the course of a daily business that generates billions of dollars each year.  Perhaps in addition to discretionary debarment, the government should consider prosecuting the company under the RICO Act

Click on the image at left to visit The Boston Globe's The Big Picture photo essay on the effects of the spill on Gulf wildlife.  It is deeply sad, but important to see.

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