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Issue #1457      2 June 2010

Boycott BP

Why? Because BP must pay. Eleven oil workers are dead. One of the largest oil spills in US history continues to worsen. BP’s oil gusher at the floor of the Gulf of Mexico may be 100 times worse than BP first estimated (and 20 times worse than the company presently claims). 100 times! BP’s oil gusher is now threatening coastal lands in Louisiana and is almost certain to destroy fisheries and the livelihoods of people who fish and shrimp in the Gulf, or rely on the Gulf for tourism business.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning after the deadly explosion that killed 11 oil workers.

The giant plumes of oil deep underwater will exact an unknown toll on sea life. And the spreading oil may even wind up in currents that eventually take it to the US eastern shores. BP CEO Tony Hayward is sanguine about the whole problem. The Financial Times quotes him saying, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.”

A boycott will send a message to BP that its shoddy oversight of this project and its history of environmental and worker safety violations is unforgivable. Take the BP Boycott Pledge, and commit not to buy gas from BP for at least three months.

BP cares desperately about its public image. This is the company that has sought to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” Business Week estimates the BP brand as worth US$3.9 billion – the highest among oil companies. “Not even an Alaskan oil spill or an explosion at a Texas refinery has put a dent in BP’s strong [brand] performance,” said Business Week in 2006.

This time must be different. A boycott will express the organised consumer anger that BP so fears. This is a company that should fear the public’s wrath, for the Deepwater Horizon blowout was a preventable disaster. While much remains unknown, there is mounting evidence that BP could have averted the catastrophe. BP made a conscious decision not to install a US$500,000 safety device that could have prevented the blowout.

There is good reason to believe BP’s contractors on the Deepwater Horizon made multiple mistakes leading up to the disaster, but it is ultimately BP’s job to make sure its contractors are exercising sufficient care. And Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, told 60 Minutes that BP pressured its contractors to skirt other safety measures that might have prevented the disaster.

All this from a company that made US$14 billion in profits in 2009 – a bad year. First quarter profits in 2010 were over US$6 billion. After the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Tony Hayward reportedly asked why bad things keep happening to BP.

But this is not a case of bad things happening to good people. BP has one of the worst environmental and safety records of any oil company operating in the United States. BP has pled guilty in just the last few years to two crimes and paid more than US$730 million in fines, penalties and settlements for environmental crimes, wilful disregard for workplace safety and energy market manipulation.

BP sometimes says it will pay for the harms caused by the spill, but at other times hedges what it may be willing to do. There will be litigation and fines, and BP won’t have the final say on what it wants to pay. In any case, cash compensation for economic harms caused – while necessary – doesn’t bring back destroyed ecosystems and does little to mitigate the company’s culpability for not preventing the blowout in the first place.

The only good that can come out of the BP disaster is if it forces the United States to fundamentally reorient energy policy. As a matter of simple common sense, the Obama administration should reverse its new policy and stop offshore drilling expansion. More fundamentally, BP’s oil gusher is yet another reminder of the need for a massive shift away from fossil fuels and to investments in efficiency and renewable energy.

The disaster also emphasises how crucial it is to hold Big Oil accountable. The BP boycott is a way to start. There are no “good” oil companies, but BP is a particularly bad and irresponsible actor. Consumers should make it pay.

Robert Weissman
President Public Citizen  

Next article – Unholy alliance: Israel, apartheid South Africa and nukes

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