This was bound to be a difficult time for the company long known as British Petroleum. An explosion at an oil well near the southern United States coast has set-off the worst spill in American history. Even after nearly two months it’s still not plugged.
President Barack Obama pumped up the pressure on BP this week. He made his fourth visit to the disaster zone, spoke about it in the first televised address he’s ever made from the enormously symbolic setting of the Oval Office and summoned BP executives to meet face-to-face.
Obama has blamed the company at every opportunity and used this week’s White House meeting to convince it to create a $20-billion fund to cover the environmental and economic cost.
But BP executives seem adept at making things worse on their own.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward first described the spill as “tiny” and then “very, very modest”.
He complained that he wanted his life back, apparently forgetting that 11 rig workers lost their lives in the explosion that set-off the spill.
His boss hardly helped. After the meeting with Obama this week, BP chairperson Carl-Henric Svanberg apologised and said his company wouldn’t ignore the people affected by the spill’s impact on fishing, tourism or way of life.
“We care about the small people,” he said. That unfortunate turn of phrase seemed like a patronising description of the very people already punished by BP’s mishap. The chairperson later apologised for that too.
The politics have been bad for President Obama as well.
A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans say the president hasn’t been tough enough on BP.
His administration is being blamed for what local residents describe as a slow and disorganised response to the catastrophe.
BP and the Obama administration have been unintentionally paired-up in an awkward partnership. Both are suffering the effects of the spill. Neither has been able to end it.
There is just too much oil and a lot of Bad Politics.