- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2010

A lot of oil is being spilled in the Gulf, but almost as irresponsible is the ink that’s been spilt incorrectly analyzing the disaster. What’s largely being overlooked is how BP’s hyperfocus on trendy but nonviable green energy alternatives caused this holocaust to wildlife and the environment.

Having read countless articles about the oil spill over the past month, there appears to be general agreement on four aspects of the crisis: (1) President Obama deserves his sinking approval ratings for exposing rank inexperience and poor leadership during the biggest test of his presidency (which is uncontestable); (2) everybody at BP should hang for being party to such an avoidable catastrophe; (3) the accident was the predictable outcome of greedy corporations de-emphasizing safety in favor of profits; and (4) the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the resultant calamity could have happened to any of BP’s competitors in the oil business.

The last two assumptions are only partly true. Of course, accidents can happen to anybody, but it’s wrong to water down BP’s responsibility by broadly portraying this spill as an industry-wide problem. The fate of the Deepwater Horizon rig was the consequence of actions taken in pursuit of BP’s corporate strategy to become known as the environmentally-friendly energy company. This agenda was drilled into public consciousness by a slick marketing campaign which rebranded BP to stand for “Beyond Petroleum.” While few ever doubted that the sealion’s share of corporate profits came from anything other than bubbling crude, the practical result of the green focus was diminished attention to the firm’s dirty and risky main business. In a symbolic sign of how flower power was replacing gas-driven horsepower, BP’s logo was even redesigned into the shape of a sunflower. Trail-blazing CEO John Browne became known as the “Sun King.”

There was a dark side to the sunny new outlook of the British petroleum giant, which last year refined 2.3 million barrels of oil per day with annual sales and revenue of $239 billion. As the company dedicated ever-larger amounts of money to alternative energy such as solar and wind projects, operating costs were slashed elsewhere, including significant cuts to safety procedures and maintenance of machinery.

While Mr. Browne concentrated on fighting purported global warming, BP facilities were struggling with safety problems. The trouble was compounded as BP led Big Oil’s merger mania, acquiring Amoco and Arco and in the process becoming too big to handle. Shortly before the Sun King’s abrupt resignation amidst a homosexual scandal in 2007, his mismanagement was at fault for massive oil spills in Alaska and a deadly explosion with nearly 200 casualties at a Texas refinery. Mr. Browne’s successor, current CEO Tony Hayward, was appointed with the explicit mandate to clean up BP’s precarious safety practices.

Which brings us to the blame game. Although Mr. Hayward deserves a dunce cap for his tone-deaf public pronouncements that consistently soft-peddled the seriousness of the Gulf leak, he is mostly culpable for being unwilling and incapable of implementing fundamental corporate change rapidly enough. If the man at the top isn’t fully engaged, a culture of safety cannot be reinvented in a conglomerate of 80,000 employees. In the aftermath of previous mishaps, BP needed a reorientation toward sound engineering, which Mr. Hayward didn’t push even though competitors such as Chevron, Exxon and Shell did. However, he wasn’t the one who threw safety standards to the wind; John Browne was. Mr. Browne spent $200 million marketing his “Beyond Petroleum” vanity project while cutting vital inspections and upkeep regimens. All the dead fish, suffocating dolphins, oil-drenched birds, ruined habitat, greasy water, tarred beaches and tanking BP stock are the legacy of the Sun King’s dishonest green propaganda.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

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