BP Spill: How Litigious Yanks Hurt UK Pensioners

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 6/03/2010 12:04:00 AM

(Before reading on, I suggest playing AC/DC's "Cover You In Oil" above.) British Petroleum's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not only an ungodly public relations fiasco but also a corporate social responsibility one. With the US government likely to fine BP over a billion dollars, its stock is sinking as quickly as thousands of barrels of oil are rising. To be sure, much blame falls on BP. It, after all, claimed in its permit application that it could handle a spill ten times the current one.

All the same, BP--despite its ham-fisted efforts at stopping the oil spill--probably has the most expertise in containing accidents of this sort. I am reminded of Charles Perrow's renowned volume on Normal Accidents where he investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear incident (as well as the space shuttle Challenger explosion in the revised edition). In it, while he does make suggestions for improving safety that can be done at little cost, these systems must ultimately be plotted on the dimensions of "Net Catastrophic Potential" and "Cost of Alternatives" to determine to see if they are worth pursuing.

Before you fire off angry e-mails in my direction, note that it's the Evening Standard's idea behind this post's title, not mine. Aside from hyperconsuming debt and grub, another American pastime is suing the bejesus out of all comers. (Possibly for rather irresponsible consumption of excess debt and grub, it ought to be noted.) While again reading the evening paper on the ride home, the newspaper's editorial section comes up with its own opinion of the Deepwater Horizon mess. While ranking offshore drilling as being high on net catastrophic potential, they tacitly believe that it is something worth pursuing in a world of dwindling natural resources. That is, the cost of alternatives is higher. There are few alternative domestic energy sources America can tap to replace the role petroleum fills at the current time.

What is more, there is an interesting IPE angle posed here: economic reality means that offshore drilling is not likely to abate in the near future. Therefore, American politicians' "smack BP and toss its execs in jail" attitude borne of American thirst for energy is misguided. Ultimately, pensioners whose funds hold many BP shares and rely on dividends from them are the real victims of US litigation lust (or so they say). There is something to be said for this line of argument. Alike the Mexican border being turned into on big crack house for America, this spill may be more an indictment of the energy-intensive American way of life than anything else. However, it would have helped if BP were more forthright about its damage limitation capabilities. At any rate, here's the op-ed:
The US government's decision to bring criminal charges against BP as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a characteristically American reaction to a crisis: if something goes wrong, sue. But it is questionable whether that approach at this point will do anything at all to address the real problem, which is that every effort that BP has made to stem the leak has failed.

Bringing criminal charges against company executives will do nothing to add to the urgency with which BP is attempting to put matters right. Deep-water drilling is patently risky and, when it goes wrong, has potentially devastating environmental consequences. Almost certainly, better contingency plans should have been in place and may have prevented 11 deaths. But they weren't, there was an accident and there can be no doubt that BP, which has most to lose from this crisis, has done everything possible to put things right.

It has failed, but not from want of trying. And the notion that the US government can succeed where BP has failed by "taking over" the operation seems illusory. The US reaction is political, an attempt by the President to respond to increasingly angry calls in the US for him to be seen to do something. But sometimes this approach is downright damaging.

An attempt retrospectively to get tough with BP by bringing criminal charges will not help us now. Indeed, the prospect of a hugely expensive lawsuit in addition to the damage to the company's reputation in the US has already driven the BP share price down; there are likely to be cuts in the dividend. Some 40 per cent of BP profit is derived from the US.

One in every six pounds that UK institutions earn in dividends is derived from BP: a reduction will have a direct, adverse effect, not just on fat cats, but on British pensioners. This is bad for all of us. We can understand American anger at this environmental and human catastrophe but the punitive approach to BP will help no one.
Agreed--criminal charges are a nonsense. All the same, the usual suspects--Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR)--are calling on BP not to pay $10 billion out in dividends in anticipation of further obligations arising from this spill. I wonder how those UK pensioners would feel if BP is turned into a "growth stock" via American legislation:
Two Democratic senators pressed BP on Wednesday to delay plans to pay shareholder dividends worth an expected $10 billion or more until the full costs for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are calculated. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon called it "unfathomable" that the oil giant would pay out a dividend to shareholders before the total cost of the cleanup is known. In a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, the lawmakers said taking action to "move money off of the company's books" will make it more difficult for BP to pay the U.S. government, fishermen and others affected by the environmental disaster.

BP PLC has paid an estimated $1 billion to clean up the oil leak and expects to spend billions more. BP spokesman Toby Odone called the distribution of dividends "a company matter" that will be decided by company leaders. BP paid $10.4 billion in dividends last year and $10.3 billion in 2008.
But, does Tony Hayward listen to AC/DC? I think he's doing a fair bit of headbanging right about now. And definitely, he's got the (litigious) Yanks covered in oil. Send John Edwards to New Orleans, ASAP.

It will be interesting to see how transatlantic relations will be affected by this spill. The Tories are usually sycophantic towards the Yanks, but their coalition partners the Lib Dems aren't. Perhaps Deepwater Horizon will finish off the hoary notion of a "special relationship" once and for all.