Business, Finance & Economics

Opinion: Let’s be reasonable about BP


BOSTON — During his visit to Washington this week Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, will be trying to cut a little slack for BP with President Barack Obama.

Some Britons have complained that Obama still refers to “British Petroleum,” when the London-based company changed its name to just the initials some time ago. They see it as being anti-British to keep using the old name.

This is pure sophistry and should not be taken seriously. David Cameron would be wise not to bring it up.

But he will be talking about BP, trying to calm the American witch hunt that has resulted in excessive excoriation.

BP has indeed been careless about safety in the past, and should bear responsibility for the worst environmental disaster in our time. As Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey said: BP does not stand for “be prepared.”

But BP has taken that responsibility and committed itself to capping the broken well head and cleaning up to the tune of $20 billion and rising.

Both Cameron and Obama realize that a bankrupt BP will not be in a position to clean up anything in the Gulf, pay for damages, or support the countless and faultless pensioners, in this country, in Britain and around the world, whose incomes and well-being should count for something in their calculations.

The administration’s raging against BP is not going to get the oil to stop flowing or get it cleaned up any faster. It is rank populism for political purposes and is not something the president of the United States, or Congress, should provoke.

There has to be some reasonable limit put on what BP is asked to do. I heard on NPR that the oil company would be asked to pick up the bill for psychiatric problems that Gulf residents might encounter. This is getting dangerously close to simply opening up BP’s veins in order to bleed it to death.

Worse, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charles Schumer, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg’s trying to put the blame on BP for the Scottish government freeing the Lockerbie bomber is a real stretch.

Readers will remember that Libya finally coughed up some suspects in the terrorist bombing that brought down an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Of the 270 people killed 189 were American citizens. The only man convicted under Scottish law in a trial in The Hague was Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi.

Last year the Scottish government freed al Megrahi on humanitarian grounds, saying that he was dying of cancer and had only a couple of months to live. Scottish law has such a provision.

Americans were outraged, and a Scottish friend said to me at the time: “He better die pretty quick.” But he hasn’t, which makes the deal even more questionable.

British justice minister at the time, Jack Straw, was honest enough to admit that commercial relations with the Libyan government was a consideration, but if you want to get cross at the deal blame the Scottish government and the British Labour Party.

That BP lobbied for what was supposed to be a prisoner transfer, not just a freeing of al Megrahi, is not an offense that should take up the time of the U.S. senate. Both the British and the Scottish governments have denied that freeing Megrahi was part of a deal involving BP, and the Scottish government has said it will cooperate in any legitimate enquiry.

I have no problem with congressional investigations into BP’s behavior in the Gulf of Mexico, but not in the Gulf of Sidra.

In sports this is called “piling on,” and going back to find everything that can be possibly found to discredit the company is going too far. BP has done enough that can be legitimately criticized. They don’t have to be blamed for the questionable actions of the Scottish government.

David Cameron, in an article published in the Wall Street Journal before his arrival, wrote that he “never saw the case” for releasing Megrahi, and that it was “a very bad decision.” That should be enough.

The idea that BP is some modern-day cigarette company that can be endlessly sued and milked for every ill that can be imagined is a temptation should be resisted.

After all, BP is the goose that everyone is counting on to continue laying billions of golden eggs to cover damages. Better to keep the hapless bird alive and laying.