As Clear as Mud


By W.T “Bill” McKibben


Sifting through mounds of media coverage on the Gulf Oil spill for the cause has proven almost as fruitless as watching the Congressional hearing participants play the blame game on who bears responsibility for this disaster. While it’s important to find out just what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon last month –as it is to minimize the damage– the underlying cause is becoming quite clear. The ethical culture projected at the top by British Petroleum (BP) was not conveyed or perhaps enabled at the operating level. This disconnect becomes obvious in reviewing their operations on another Gulf rig, the Atlantis.


The company hired an independent firm headed by Stanley Sporkin, a former federal judge, to review a whistle-blower's complaints about the BP-owned Atlantis, stationed more than 150 miles south of New Orleans in over 7,000 feet of water. The gist of the complaint is that the Atlantis operated with incomplete and inaccurate engineering documents, which one expert warned could "lead to catastrophic operator error." Sporkin says that the whistle-blower’s allegation "was substantiated, and that's it." We are not talking about a paper here and a paper there. An expert who reviewed thousands of the Atlantis’ documents says that as many as 85% of them were flawed.

Not so according to an Associated Press report. Karen K. Westall, Managing Attorney for BP, says "BP has reviewed the allegations and found them to be unsubstantiated." Adding to the confusion, early this year a BP lawyer advised members of Congress that the company was complying with federal requirements. Furthermore the Atlantis received an award for safe operation from the Minerals and Management Service (MMS), the federal agency that oversees these rigs. Makes you wonder what they call that award, maybe “The MMS So Far, So Good Award.”

It all comes down to this. Ethical behavior ain’t cheap, but it’s a whole lot less expensive than the alternative as BP is discovering. When you’re in a hurry, or someone is pushing to save a buck, it’s too easy to cut a corner, or in this case thousands of corners. BP can talk the talk, but they are far from walking the walk. At this point they need to step full bore into the ethical model. They keep saying they will bear responsibility for all financial loss. That would be a big step in the right direction. It rings a little hollow, however, against the finger pointing they did during the Congressional hearing.

It’s time for BP to decide their future. If they do the right thing, tell their lawyers to “stuff a sock in it” and spread an ethical culture into every corner of their operations, they may be able to recover their reputation. That is an incredibly expensive alternative. Should they choose to stonewall, duck and dodge, the odds are they will destroy what little is left of their reputation and perhaps the company. A much more expensive alternative.