Make no mistake, the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is a serious one for all concerned; for the local fishing industry, for the wildlife, for residents and for those who make a living from the local region. For two groups, however, there is far more at stake: The White House and British Petroleum. For both, this has become a poker game with the highest possible stakes, an all or nothing scenario with everything to lose and only equilibrium to retain. In a situation that has come to dominate the airwaves in the United States, both parties are under fire, with political opponents seeking the opportunity to add blood to the already polluted waters.
This is about far more than pollution and environmentalism. At the heart of the story are two organisations that simply cannot be seen to lose. It is, and will continue to be, a tale of spin control. In one corner stands British Petroleum, the mighty organisation that generates vast fortunes of revenue year in and year out. In the other corner is the White House, occupied by everyone’s favourite Nobel laureate, President Obama. Under fire from political opponents for doing seemingly little about the disaster, the president has now made three trips to Louisiana in the past six weeks, in an effort to be seen to be doing something. This has involved holding meetings with local officials and taking photo-opportunity trips to beaches, staring out at the ocean and sifting through the polluted sands.
What does this achieve, one may ask? Well it presents the impression of pro-activity if nothing else. Alas, presidential visits do not simply occur, they are vast exercises in organisation and security. Marine One does not simply deposit POTUS on a beach and then deliver him safely back to the White House. The very business of placing Obama on a beach in Louisiana requires a security detail and planning that will have vastly impacted the ability of those involved in conducting the clean up from simply getting on and doing their job. Instead of working, they will be required to adhere to security restrictions put in place to accommodate Obama’s visit. Instead of getting on with the clean up, they will be required to meet with Obama, whilst the president looks stern and resolute for the evening news.
Which is to say that the situation is now simply a political football. The White House is clearly concerned that this will become seen as Obama’s Katrina, and the way to avoid this is to lay the blame squarely on BP. Thus far, BP’s response has been to attempt to plug the leak in oil, if not in its reputation. Once the oil flow has been stemmed it may be in a better position to explain the complex ownership issues that exist in the oil industry and how it came to be drilling at that time and place and the role of Halliburton in the whole process. Until then, the White House will continue to portray this as an example of greedy (and foreign) investors ruining the American environment. Such a lament is inappropriate, of course, as the American coast is ringed with drilling platforms, merrily pumping away, be it at oil or gas reserves. When Piper Alpha exploded off the British coast, no one was arguing that it was an American disaster and pointing the finger across the Atlantic.
The deregulation that has contributed to this crisis is not unlike that which accompanied the financial market, and neither is the result. When times are good, deregulation has a thousand fathers. Now it is an orphan. BP and the Obama Administration now face the Poor House. There is only room for one and both will fight to avoid this most ignoble of ends.