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Robert Reich

Why BP won't pay for full Gulf spill clean-up

Oil giant BP has been making public statements about its corporate social responsibility for as many years as it’s behaved irresponsibly.

By Guest blogger / May 17, 2010

This bird was rescued on May 15 at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Buras, La after being exposed an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform more than three weeks ago. The White House warned BP on Saturday that the oil company would be responsible for clean-up costs beyond the $75 million liability cap.

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Saturday the White House warned BP that it expects the oil giant to pay all damages associated with the disastrous oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico, even if the costs exceed the $75 million liability cap under federal law. BP responded Sunday saying its public statements are “absolutely consistent” with the Administration’s request.

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When you hear dueling public statements like these, watch your wallets. You can safely assume BP’s lawyers are already at work to ensure that the firm pays not a cent more than $75 million — not to taxpayers bearing cleanup costs, not to consumers whose gas bills will rise, not to businesses along the coasts that will lose a fortune. And BP won’t pay more unless or until there’s a law requiring it to.

BP has been making public statements about its supposed corporate social responsibility for as many years as it’s behaved irresponsibly. It’s the poster child for PR masquerading as CSR.

It was just eight years ago British Petroleum shortened its name to BP and began promoting itself as the environmentally-friendly oil company with a vision that went “Beyond Petroleum” to embrace solar cells and wind power. In a $200 million advertising campaign organized by Olgilvy & Mather, BP transformed its corporate brand insignia from a shield to the more wholesomely natural green, yellow, and white sunburst. BP’s chief executive, Lord John Browne, issued warnings about global warming and said the company had a social responsibility to take action.

Notwithstanding its new image, BP continues to be one of the largest producers of crude oil on the planet. Although it committed itself to devoting $8 billion to alternative fuels over ten years, the sum was tiny compared to BP’s annual profits from oil that have averaged over $20 billion and its annual capital expenditures of over $14 billion.

Nor has the firm distinguished itself by its commitment to the law. Several years before the Gulf oil rig explosion, an explosion at BP’s Texas City plant killed fifteen workers and triggered a $21.3-million fine from safety regulators.

In March 2005, corrosion of BP’s pipes and equipment on the North Slope in Alaska led to a spill of 270,000 gallons of oil, the largest spill ever recorded in that fragile territory. Critics said BP wasn’t spending enough money to prevent such spills. Only in 2006, after it was forced by the U.S. government to inspect all its pipelines with an automated device that crawled through the pipes, did the company discover so much additional corrosion and leakage it had to shut down a sixteen-mile feeder line to the Trans Alaska Pipeline.