Monday, May 17, 2010

The Oil Spill Shell Game

Look who's coming to the defense of BP: The former President of Shell Oil. We're assured that BP will survive the oil spill, this is really our fault for wanting oil, and that we're "greedy consumers" for wanting it to be produced in a manner that allows us to avoid the "taste, touch, see or smell it or its production". Perhaps Shell could fix that by lightly spraying consumers with a mist of crude oil at its gas stations - teach us some appreciation.
In the fullness of time the Gulf incident will be an anomaly: deadly, expensive and unfortunate, unprecedented in 40 years of offshore operations. The industry knows what it is doing.
We can hope that this spill is an anomaly. But the spill belies the argument that "the industry knows what it is doing", at least once you move past the question of how to remove deep sea oil from the ground. From the moment of the accident, the cleverest minds in the industry have been scrambling to find a way to slow or stop the gusher. (Was it those same minds, or the captains of the industry, who preferred to save money by blocking a requirement for potentially effective, but extremely expensive, untested technology that might have already stopped the spill?) The author complains, in the form of a non sequitur,
Shell and the other US oil majors have known all this for a century. They're unlikely to share their knowledge. They'd face an anti-trust charge.
Exactly what is it that the major oil companies can't share without facing an anti-trust charge? The auto industry has shared patented safety technologies (such as Audi's patented automatic shift lock) without problem. If Shell is sitting on technology that would enable BP to stop the leak, or would allow for deep sea drilling with a much lower chance of accident, color me skeptical that they would get anything but praise for sharing their discoveries.

But you know, the author has a point. The citizens of Bhopal, India didn't complain when they were earning wages producing chemicals at the local Union Carbide plant, but release a few tons of poison gas into the air and they never forgive you. Even though it's been twenty-five years and we haven't had a recurrence on that scale. Or, in the similar context of this oil spill:
In addition they have recruited 13,000 people to clean up, opened their website and telephone lines to every offer of help and damning complaint from the public, kept the media well informed, met with sceptical federal officials from an array of agencies, organised for legal recriminations – and kept their head while running the rest of their company. This takes capacity and competence.
You know what would have demonstrated BP's capacity and competence even better than a prompt effort to control the public debate, lobby politicians, point fingers at the other companies involved in the disaster, attempt to develop repair technology after-the-fact, and hiring even large numbers people to clean up a continuing, major oil spill? I'll give you one guess.

Maybe it's boring or unexciting to live the life of a competent executive who prevents disasters, as opposed to one who handles the post-disaster P.R. game with aplomb. But we greedy consumers want so much - like seeing the latest incarnation of "Brownie" do a "heckuva job" before we lavish him with praise.

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