Working closely with the non-profit sector, especially non-profits that deal with energy and transportation policy, I always find it a bit odd that, while oil companies like Exxon/Mobil are castigated for their lack of concern for the environment, BP is almost uniformly praised, even among those who are supposed to be in the know. The reason, of course, is that BP has a marketing department more adept at green messaging. Hopefully, a story in this morning's New York Times will help shatter that conventional wisdom.
Earlier this month, a massive oil spill pumped anywhere from a few thousand to nearly a million gallons of crude oil onto the tundra at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. It is the largest oil spill on Alaska's North Slope to date. Previously in February of 2001, two other oil spills dumped almost ten thousand gallons into the same region. As recently as last spring, there were three more spills in the area. These disasters have one thing in common -- BP was responsible for all of them. Here's some more information from the latest Times piece.
... one of the company's longtime employees, a mechanic and local union official who has participated in the spill cleanup, said in a telephone interview that he and his colleagues had repeatedly warned their superiors that cutbacks in routine maintenance and inspection had increased the chances of accidents or spills.
In the interview, Marc Kovac, who is an official of the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the BP facility, said he had seen little change in BP's approach despite the warnings.
"For years we've been warning the company about cutting back on maintenance," Mr. Kovac said, adding that he was speaking for himself, not the union. "We know that this could have been prevented."
Maintenance at BP's Prudhoe Bay facility has been a problem for some time now. In 2001, The Wall Street Journal reported that the valves designed to protect against pipeline leaks and ruptures were not working properly and "can't be relied upon to shut in an emergency, creating the potential for a natural catastrophe." And here's where the story gets even worse. When Republicans talk about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge up to drilling, they point to nearby Prudhoe Bay as a guide on environmental impact. For example, look at the 2005 Heritage Foundation report titled "Opening ANWR: Long Overdue."
Good Energy Policy
The Prudhoe Bay experience also presents strong evidence that drilling can be done with only a modest impact on the environment. Decades of drilling on a scale much larger than that envisioned in ANWR have not harmed the porcupine caribou herds near Prudhoe Bay or caused any of the other environmental problems that were predicted. Thirty years makes a difference, too. Drilling in ANWR would be done with much better environmental safeguards than were available in the 1970s. And today's technology is far more environmentally friendly than that available 30 years ago.
In case you happen to be curious, BP has indeed been a major financial backer of the Heritage Foundation over the years. But of course, their support for Heritage pales in comparison to their support of K Street. The company has spent nearly three million dollars on lobbying in 2005 alone. It goes without saying that pro-corporate think tanks like Heritage are, by definition, easier to buy off than Congress.
When will corporations wake up to the fact that there is long-term value in real environmental responsibility? People obviously want to buy what their advertising is purporting to sell, but the reality just isn't there. It's one thing for a company like BP to run an ad campaign that promotes the idea that the company is committed to sustainability and renewables, but it's ultimately pointless if it's just to divert attention away from BP's horrible record of managerial irresponsibility in places like Prudhoe Bay.