The Oily Truth Spills Out

What would have happened if BP had actually followed the CSR creed?

From devastated ecosystems to ruined fisheries, broken local economies to toxic health effects, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may well be the greatest catastrophe in the history of our petroleum addiction. But it doesn’t have to be a total disaster. If we’re smart, we’ll wring some good out of this desperate situation by using it to identify some serious collective failings and ensure they never happen again.

That would be easy to do because the Gulf calamity is a case study in needed changes. That starts with the true cost of this dangerous natural resource. Whether we measure it in atmospheric damage or the consequences of extracting and transporting oil, the full cost to our planet and society is far too high. Since oil supplies will peak in the next few years, we need to begin immediately shifting to a sustainable energy system based on renewable resources. Instead of unimaginative calls for more offshore drilling, a position that’s now embarrassing at best, President Obama should be rallying us around, as Thomas Friedman has advocated, an energy Marshall Plan that would create the clean power supplies we’re going to need to support a healthy and sustainable economy.

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The Oily Truth Spills Out
By Jeffrey Hollender


We can also find crucial regulatory lessons in the Gulf’s oil-stained waters. Over the course of the last decade, the federal Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for offshore drilling oversight, was packed with oil industry insiders who weakened existing safety regulations and refused to require key emergency systems that might have prevented the current havoc. These “regulators” were also lax in pursuing rules violations and levied only miniscule fines, which further encouraged industry misbehavior. Clearly, we need to increase regulatory oversight and pass new laws that prevent the foxes from guarding our henhouses.

Then there is the question I can’t help but ask: If British Petroleum (the company that only a few years ago referred to itself as, “beyond petroleum”) was an authentically responsible corporation, would the Gulf be in the mess it’s in now? Perhaps not. An oil company driven by a mission of genuine responsibility would have voluntarily installed the non-required safety gear. It would not have been drilling to depths beyond those permitted, as has been reported, nor would it have outsourced this drilling to begin with. And when mayhem struck, instead of disputing high leak rate figures, transparency would have insisted that it come immediately clean about the extent of the problem—or at least admit that it had no idea how bad things were—so that appropriate resources could be marshaled without delay.

Yes, these things can take money. An automatic switch that closes off blow-outs, for example, runs about $500,000. But compared to the $30 billion drop in market value BP stock has experienced since the spill, not to mention what it might cost to clean up the entire Gulf of Mexico, that’s a drop in the bucket. As I’ve said before, the ROI on responsibility is always a good investment. And that’s the real lesson of the Deepwater Horizon disaster: Whether it’s new energy policies or adopting corporate responsibility, doing the right thing usually costs a little more up front, but it always saves far more in the long run. Let’s hope that wisdom is ultimately all that’s left behind on Louisiana’s shores.

About Jeffrey Hollender

Jeffrey Hollender is co-author of the recently published book, The Responsibility Revolution and Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Seventh Generation, the leader in green household products. He is also the author of Inspired Protagonist , the leading blog on corporate responsibility and a co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council and the Sustainability Institute.

Talkback Question: Readers, what’s your opinion on the BP oil spill? What could or should have been done differently? What lessons do you draw from the disaster? Share your thoughts with Talkback.

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