BP culpable

Tom Speight, writing for The Commonweal (14 June 10) made it clearer than I read anywhere else, that BP was willfully and culpably negligent in bringing about the circumstances that allowed the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Every oil or gas rig ought to be able to anticipate, and prepare for, the kind of problems that led to the spill (gas "burps," equipment malfunctions, operator error). Such an offshore well, drilled at such a depth, obviously posed a big risk, and it should not have been drilled without contingency plans, proven shutoff methods, and back-up equipment sitting on the shelf, ready to be used. After all, blowouts happen even in well-developed and comparatively stable oil and gas fields, and recent years have seen several underwater blowouts off the coasts of Mexico and Australia. Since the oil and gas beneath the seabed are under such intense pressure that oil oozes out of natural seeps against the pressure of five thousand feet of ocean (measured in tons per square inch), this kind of drilling can be like punching a hole in a pressurized propane tank. . . .

BP’s entire drilling operation was shoddy. The seals on the blowout preventer-the device designed to keep oil and gas from spurting out of the well-disintegrated a month before the accident and were never repaired. There was no acoustic failsafe switch, a device that could have triggered the blowout preventer and shut the well off even after electrical power was lost and the rig was destroyed (though of course this would have helped only if the blowout preventer was in working order to begin with). There was no backup blowout preventer, and there was no spill-response unit on standby. BP’s representative on the rig ordered the Transocean drilling crew to remove some of the drilling mud from the borehole and replace it with seawater, which would have allowed BP to begin producing oil and gas from the well sooner, but which also left the well unable to contain the high-pressure oil and gas. . . .

"No one could have foreseen this" is a shabby excuse. Blowouts do happen. Thousands of books have been written on oil-rig safety, and many of the safety measures or redundancies that could have saved the Deepwater Horizon are mandatory on oil rigs off the coasts of other countries. Acoustic switches used to be mandatory on drill rigs in U.S. waters, until the Bush administration dropped the requirement, and they are still mandatory in most countries that drill.

Speight goes on to mention BP’s very bad safety record in the Unites States and to argue for "consistent, legally enforced measures" to manage the risks involved.

As Mark Speeks sets out in The Tablet, the Gulf of Mexico spill highlights ethical concerns about drilling for oil in some of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. There are also serious concerns for pension funds that hold BP shares.

It is arguable whether the major oil companies match the criteria for an ethical investment. With many of the most obvious and easily accessible sites for drilling in production or exhausted, the oil industry is encroaching on remote pristine areas of outstanding beauty worldwide, threatening such areas as the Canadian Arctic tundra, once too difficult to reach.

While the companies promise to behave responsibly, no matter the efforts to minimise risk, the threat to the environment is ever present while the profit motive often places a limit on safety measures. And, of course, as the world gropes for a viable alternative, oil will remain for some time to come the essential lubricant for all our economies.

At least it can be said that oil is essential for transport and the manufacture of our medicines, fertilisers and many other products. There are other products that are more questionably ethically, such as tobacco and alcohol and dubious fanatical instruments.

Ethical investors can perhaps feel like sheep surrounded by wolves, uncertain whether the necessity of investing wisely for the short and long term means surrendering or compromising their most cherished beliefs. Indeed, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out in exactly those terms. The remedy Jesus recommended was to be "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves". . . .

The conundrum of being in the world and yet not of it creates a constant tension. . . . A Christian approach to ethical investment should not seek to withdraw from the world, fearful of contamination, but recognise that there are no pure choices and engage in the battle. . . . Justice, love and the common good are not ideas that should be banished from the boardroom but embraced. Moreover, a profound sense of responsibility for our actions and their effect on the environment is no mere box-ticking exercise but a humble recognition of our stewardship of creation. . . . In practice, it means attending shareholder meetings and asking questions. It means seeking out like-minded shareholders so that resolutions can be placed on the agenda for voting. It means not re-electing directors who don’t listen to their shareholders. It means understanding a company’s articles of association. It means agitating for meetings with management and boards. It also means using the press. . . .

Only by answering how the world could be different can Christians engage honestly with big business. It isn’t enough to be an Elijah denouncing the powers that be when there are few, if any, alternatives. . . . Preferential ethics has no place in the Christian lexicon. Situational ethics have. Risks and bad consequences can-and must be-accepted once it is understood that sin is part and parcel of a world that struggles to become the Kingdom of God. . . . The Christian vocation is to engage in each individual battle: making sure that better decisions are made and more precautions are taken.

I might give BP’s products a miss for a while.