‘The Spill’: Tracing BP’s safety record

Not long after the explosion that resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, the culprit, BP, committed public-relations gaffes, the most disturbingly memorable of which involved the company’s chief executive at the time, Tony Hayward, proclaiming, “I’d like my life back.”

But postures of insensitivity have really been the least of BP’s offenses. As “The Spill,” a documentary that is a joint presentation of “Frontline” and ProPublica, so compellingly details, the company’s history of flagrantly violating safety standards made lethal personal injuries and horrific accidents practically inevitable.

The film is an old-school, dig-deep production that could have been improved upon only if it had been longer. An hour somehow seems insufficient. Viewers who like to nurse corporate grievances — and there are certainly many of them in the current economic climate — will wish for an additional 60 minutes. And yet there is something commendable in the film’s brisk pacing and tight informative focus, one that allows the narrative of villainy to speak for itself without dramatic embellishment.

“The Spill” travels back, looking at BP’s bleak environmental and safety record, and unpacks in riveting outline the company’s March 2005 disaster. At the time, an explosion in a refinery in Texas City, Texas, acquired by BP six years earlier as a result of its takeover of Amoco, killed 15 people and injured 170. Built in 1934, the refinery was in less than optimum shape. As Mike Sawyer, a process-safety engineer, explains in the film, it was typical for the refinery to experience a fire every week, on average.

“A fire every week is a warning sign that something is critically wrong at the facility,” he says. “It was the worst refinery around this area for sure.” And yet cost-cutting imperatives instituted by Hayward’s predecessor, John Browne, ensured that upgrades to the Texas City site — ones that would have replaced old equipment with safer, modern flares designed to collect perilous liquids and gases in the event of an emergency — would not happen. BP ultimately paid victims of the accident, and their families, more than a billion dollars in compensation, contingent on the promise that they never speak critically about the company in public.

“The Spill,” without even much trying, deftly portrays the vast cultural gap between the company’s British honchos and the plant managers and employees on the ground in Texas — a gap that easily accentuates any view of the company’s callousness. Here BP emerges, in effect, not merely as short-sighted, venal and stingy but also as tragically imperious. (On Monday the company waged another effort in its misguided PR campaign, as BP’s new chief executive, Bob Dudley, claimed the media and the scientific community essentially overreacted to the severity of the gulf spill.)

The film is right in illuminating BP’s greatest failure as its above-it-all strategy of defensive management: an attempt to litigate problems away rather than handling them at the front end, pro-actively, in a manner that would have been not only infinitely more humane but also more cost-effective. In the end BP executives couldn’t quell their dangerous addiction to the bottom line. Theirs is a morality tale for all.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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