Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Let the Blue Ribbon Panels Begin

Expect Pointless Pontification to Follow, Looong Afterwards

The petroleum industry has little to fear from Congress or for its reputation. Like the bankers, insurance industry, real estate, Wall Street, the credit card industry, and even the auto industry, there is the Headline Phase, the Hearings Phase, and now the Independent Panel Phase. It’s the usual stuff, when the answers are hard. Eventually, while there may be some new regulations, we’ll be left mostly with fund raising photos of dead animals and the oily sheen on Gulf Coast waters.

Congress and the news media are having a particularly hard time. BP, like Toyota before it and even some of the fat cats on Wall Street before that, has mastered its visceral distrust and dislike for both. All of these industries have bought and paid for Congress and the big show many times over. This is just another checkbook exercise for all, and they are getting really good at it.

Where is the Larry Rawl character in this play when Congress and the media need him most? Larry Rawl—the highly combative former Exxon Chief at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill disaster—took 30 days to go to the scene, claiming his visit would be disruptive to recovery efforts (sound familiar?). All the while Rawl groused, moaned, and whined about activists and a public who failed to understand his industry. He was annoyed that Americans, who wanted the oil, couldn’t stomach a little risk on their way to the local Mobil gas station. He got a two-page spread from TIME magazine during the height of the Valdez catastrophe to rant about how he was personally being treated, the craziness of the activists, how his family was being maligned, his industry stained and besmirched, and the huge waste of his time this incident was causing. The price of gas jumped at least 10 cents a gallon immediately, he made a profit and his peers felt good. It was great theater.

Clearly, the Federal Government’s Bush/Obama policy of “get in bed with the oil and gas industry” allowed this to happen. The President has already said that there is plenty of blame to go around. This means no one will be punished. The imposition of any meaningful new tougher environmental controls, restrictions, oversight, and tougher laws are far less likely because the “Blue Ribbon” approach allows the people responsible for yesterday’s policies to rewrite history right along side current incumbents.

There is already extreme collateral damage caused by the news media. Their frustration and obvious impatience that the oil has not yet come ashore to confirm their prophecies of doom has led to mindless, overblown, and often frantic coverage that has done more damage to tourism and economic development in the Gulf Coast region than the oil spill is ever likely to do.

After all, we do need the oil, and the industry has learned that it can afford anything because it can just pass the cost on to us. Five dollars a gallon by November 2012? Now there’s a platform to run on.

Ironically, as a public relations lesson, BP’s busy and ever open checkbook, and its willingness to appear somewhat humble and responsible is denying the energy their opponents, critics, and the media require to be effectively negative. Abundant supplies of cash, readily distributed, tend to reduce the need to exhibit shame.

The greatest threat to BP, if it succumbs to it, is the sniping and testosterosis of their two partners, both of whom seem impatient to assume the roles of victims of government overkill and overreaching, while blame-shifting all the burden to BP.

The major mistake Mr. Obama made was to simply criticize the way these companies were whining and criticizing each other before Congress. He should have ordered them to work together to solve the problems first, then solve their internal disputes later. At the same time Obama should have convened an emergency Board of Inquiry with real time powers and a mandate to investigate and report continuously and publicity what they learn, when they learned it.

A British slogan from World War II seems quite appropriate at this stage. In World War II, reassuring signs were posted all over Britain saying, “Remain calm, carry on.” It seems like useful advice right now, for everyone.

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