Sunday, June 06, 2010

BP vs. The President

Here's a little rhetorical trick that is surprisingly effective:
The evidence is overwhelming. Any fair-minded person who examines the Gulf of Mexico oil spillage is compelled to two conclusions. First, that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by BP. Second, that the President of the United States has behaved disgracefully.
Wow... there's a lot of evidence, even if I haven't heard it all? And I'm fair minded, right? So how can I not agree with whatever comes next?

Truly, the trick is effective. If you're addressing an audience that hasn't spent much time thinking about the issue, the rhetorical flourish "any fair-minded person would agree," or "as any thinking person would concede," can embarrass a lot of people out of challenging your position. Even if the facts are much more ambiguous, or if you're advancing a position you know to be misleading or wrong.

The author, British right-winger Bruce Anderson, complains that the world needs oil or, more accurately, " meet increased demand and replace declining production in mature fields, [over the next twenty years] we will need the equivalent of two new Middle Easts or four new Saudi Arabias." So, yes, absent a miracle the world will either have to make due with a lot less energy than it wants, invest heavily in alternate sources, and engage in oil exploration in areas that are increasingly remote and difficult to access. Anderson insists, facts be damned, that the oil companies that are pursuing the elusive "four new Saudi Arabias" are "obsessed with safety". That's not to say that safety isn't important to them, or avoiding the cost of a disaster such as the one we're presently experiencing doesn't motivate a significant degree of care and safety, but "safety obsessed" is not a term I would use to describe BP or the management of the Deepwater Horizon.

Anderson suggests that nothing more could have been done, something that is patently false. He also suggests that oil disasters are an inevitable consequence of oil exploration, particularly the complicated and dangerous forms of exploration that are necessary to quench the world's unquenchable thirst for oil, something that is true but in no way excuses the inexcusable. He pulls out the red herring that it would be "absurd to force all oil rigs to cease drilling", something that nobody of consequence has suggested. While it's fun to trot out a straw man, such as his suggestion that the "international left has always hated the oil industry", even if that were true it has no relevance to the present discussion. It's similarly fun to accuse "the Greens" of wining "naive support by exaggerating the threat which oil-drilling poses to the environment", but Anderson's own sin of granting an undeserved industry-wide exculpation for any environmental consequence of the industry's practices.

So what of Anderson's attack on President Obama? He compliments the government's response to the disaster,
Government agencies were on the scene rapidly. There was a much greater sense of grip than over Hurricane Katrina.
So... what is it then? Being unable to criticize Obama's job performance, Anderson attacks (of all things) his speaking skills, suggesting that they're inferior even to GW's. Um... alrighty, then. Anderson also contends that he's incapable of "mak[ing] Americans feel good about themselves", something that if true seems again irrelevant to the present discussion. He then ignores Obama's record, pretending that prior to his becoming a presidential candidate "he took ultra-left wing positions on almost everything", then abandoned those positions "in pursuit of electability". No, actually, Obama has been more consistent than most politicians. He has been very good at maintaining a certain level of ambiguity about his positions, and letting others assume that he agrees with them, but his actual record demonstrates a consistent approach to the issues. But Anderson's on a rant, so facts be damned, right?

So what's Obama's biggest sin, at least according to Anderson? Trying to make up for his inability to make Americans feel good about an oil catastrophe by defaming BP. Anderson offers one, and only one, example of this phenomenon:
It has been 10 years since BP stopped calling itself British Petroleum (patriots could be tempted to conclude that its present misfortunes are divine punishment). Yet the President constantly reverts to the old name, as if "British" were a term of abuse. Not only is Britain the US's most important ally. BP has 24,000 American employees and 10,000 British ones. So when he denigrates this great company, Mr Obama is damaging US interests as well as British ones.
It's almost enough to make you choke on your Kentucky Fried Ch... KFC. Seriously - Anderson's knickers are in a twist because President Obama is calling BP "British Petroleum", making "British" a "term of abuse", and thus transforming any criticism of BP into an attack on Great Britain itself? Let's call Anderson's attack for what it is - a swing and a miss.

Meanwhile, on another (virtual) page of the same paper, David Usborne shares his experience trying to squeeze some candor out of BP.
That BP is now accused of underplaying the awfulness of what is happening in the Gulf is the fault mostly of its CEO, Tony Hayward, who recently said the environmental impact would end up being "very modest". The American public were less than impressed.
No, wait, it's all because Obama doesn't make us feel good!
Ten days ago I was at BP's Houston HQ to interview Mr Hayward at a crucial juncture – the effort to plug the well with the "top-kill". Mr Hayward changed his mind and we didn't see him. But we did see BP's PR machine.

Just before noon on 27 May, I met managing director Bob Dudley and Hayward spokesman, Andrew Gowers. They told me that the top-kill was moving forward. "The top kill operation continues," Dudley told me. "The fluid right now is going in two directions; some out the top and some down into the well and we want to reduce the amount that is going out the top and then we will continue to inject the heavy fluids down into the well..." Please note the "right now" bit.
Usborn later found out that the claim was not true, that "Only later – when the markets had closed – did we learn that all pumping of mud into the well had ceased the night before."
I challenged Gowers by text message about the impression given that pumping was going on. "We cannot offer blow by blow commentary on something as difficult and delicate and market sensitive as this," was his response. There it is – market sensitive.
I think Usborne is too hard on BP. After all, high stock prices make Americans feel good.

(In case you can't get yourself enough of that Bruce Anderson, here are a couple of memories.)

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