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Out, Damned Spill, Out

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Indeed, for BP, the most damning aspect of the catastrophe in the gulf has been the emergence of copious evidence of its systematic recklessness, followed closely by that of its mendacity (the lowballing of estimates of the oil flow from the well leaps to mind). Then there has been Hayward’s maladroitness, starting with his galling whine, “I’d like my life back.” All this would have been bad for any oil company in such circumstances. But for one with a sunflower for its logo, it fosters an impression that extends beyond callousness into the realm of creepiness.

Equally striking has been the company’s unskillfulness—you could say incompetence—in dealing with the political fallout from the crisis. “They haven’t taken the initiative on anything; instead, they’ve been defensive and confrontational,” says one sharp operative who’s worked for years at the nexus of business and politics. “They could have proposed the fund. They could be calling environmental groups, saying, ‘Hey, you guys have thousands of volunteers, we’ll put up $20 million, let’s call them in’—there’s not a group in the country that wouldn’t jump at that. When Obama wasn’t calling Hayward, why didn’t they have him call the White House switchboard? If Obama doesn’t call back, you tell the press, ‘Hey, I tried, but I couldn’t get through,’ and watch the blowback. If he does call back, you look good for reaching out first—and you’ve shifted some responsibility away from you and toward them.”

Having thoroughly bungled the first two months of the crisis in terms of its public image, it’s hard to imagine BP—once it actually stops the undersea geyser in the gulf—pulling off the longer-term trick of fixing the damage to its doomstruck brand. “The spill puts BP in a nasty double bind,” says Parker. “The ‘Beyond Petroleum’ positioning and flower motif are not only almost comically ironic, but in their falseness, they reinforce the notion that the company isn’t to be trusted. And worse, they can’t be escaped. BP won’t be able to change its brand anytime soon, since caring about surface issues such as logos will appear monumentally tone-deaf now, and on top of that, the company can no longer afford the half a billion dollars that it would cost.”

All of which brings us back to the lessons of this mess—not for BP, but for America. For years, the company’s marketing played to the contradictory impulses felt by consumers when it came to energy and the environment: to our concern about the future of the planet, on one hand, and our inclination to duck the hard choices entailed by doing anything about it on the other.

One recent BP TV ad illustrates the point. A young woman standing outside a state park is asked by an interviewer, “What would you rather have, a car or a cleaner environment?” To which she replies, “I can’t imagine being without my car. Of course, I’d rather have a clean environment. But that compromise is very hard to make where we are.” Followed by this copy: “We voluntarily introduced cleaner fuels, six years before EPA mandates. These low-sulfur fuels reduce ozone pollution. And are available in 40 U.S. cities … It’s a start.”

What BP was offering was the illusion that we don’t have to compromise, that we don’t have to choose, that we can tinker around the edges and everything will be fine. In the weeks ahead, as the Senate takes up energy reform, a similar argument—albeit one never stated this bluntly—will underlie much of the debate. As things stand now, there aren’t 60 votes in the upper chamber to pass a bill that includes the single measure that would begin weaning the country off its dependence on fossil fuels: putting a price on carbon. At the moment, the talk inside the White House is all about getting behind a less ambitious bill, passing it in the Senate, and then attempting to insert a carbon-pricing mechanism when the thing is merged with the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House last year.

There are countless reasons to believe that this is a pipe dream. That what we’re likely to end up with instead is a law festooned with various well-intentioned conservation measures that will do little to alter the fundamentals of American energy or climate policy, and next to nothing to shift our economy to one fueled by green innovation. But let’s hope that somehow the president finds a way to prevent that outcome. In BP, we see a company that undertook a phony transformation and now lies in ruin. One lesson here should be that something similar can happen to countries, too.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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