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Beyond Pernicious: BP’s Long, Deadly Reign

November 2, 2009
BP Tx refinery

The 2005 explosion at BP's refinery killed 15, injured 170

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a record $87.4 million fine against oil giant BP for hundreds of ongoing safety violations at the company’s Texas refinery, where 170 workers were injured and 15 killed in a 2005 explosion. Recent OSHA investigations of the plant, the nation’s third-largest refinery, found BP failed to address the 2005 violations in 270 instances, and found an additional 439 new violations.

In 2007, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released its report on the Texas refinery explosion. The panel found that BP’s budget cutting for safety measures at the plant left it “vulnerable to a catastrophe.” They identified several factors leading to the explosion, including:

  • Massive cost-cutting by corporate leaders
  • inadequate corporate oversight
  • outdated mechanical equipment
  • a culture that discouraged the reporting of safety problems

Since 2005, there have been four more fatal accidents at the Texas plant.

Internal company documents show that top BP executives ignored safety problems at the Texas plant. Shortly before the explosion, a 2005 Health and Safety business plan warned that because of safety lapses, the refinery “will likely kill someone in the next 12-18 months.”

BP claims it has spent more than $1 billion in upgrades at the refinery and is contesting the recent OSHA fine. But the state of Texas recently sued BP for ongoing pollution from the refinery, charging the company with spewing thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals in “a pattern of unnecessary and unlawful emissions.” In 2008 BP had record profits of over $20 billion on revenue of more than $367 billion; compensation for four top executives was up nearly 20%, to more than $9 million. Former BP Chair John Browne took away somewhere between $35 million and $143 million (by varying estimates) on his retirement in 2007.

BP’s history of criminal and unethical behavior is too lengthy and audacious to recount here (eg, efforts to undermine the sanctions movement against South Africa’s Apartheid regime), but in brief, some recent examples include:

Colombia: In 2005, BP was sued by Colombian farmers for environmental destruction, health hazards, and human rights violations related to the oil company’s operations there. Citing a reign of terror by Colombian paramilitary groups, including murders, rapes and sexual harassment against the farmers and their supporters, a plaintiff’s lawyer stated, “BP holds itself out as a leading force for social and corporate responsibility but when it comes down to it they have been prepared to see lives destroyed so that they can increase their profits.” The suit was settled in July 2006, but another group of farmers filed new claims in 2008. BP’s Colombia operations first came under fire in the late 1990’s, when a government report revealed the company had collaborated with paramilitary groups responsible for involved in kidnappings, torture, and murder.

Indonesia: In 2003, an independent expert panel led by U.S. Senator George Mitchell warned BP that its $2 billion oil exploration deal in West Papua, Indonesia could trigger more repression and human rights violations in the region. By 2004, communities in West Papua were already feeling burned by the company’s development. A coalition of more than 300 organizations and individuals from West Papua denounced BP’s operations for failing to address human rights violations, back-room dealing with Indonesian authorities, and ignoring the ongoing repression by the Indonesian regime in the area. Their statement noted one local leader’s observation that “BP claims to have human rights policies but they are constantly violating the rights of the local indigenous people.” In 2005, BP signed a security agreement with an Indonesian police chief who had been charged by the U.N. Serious Crimes Unit for leading repressive forces against the East Timorese independence movement. In 2007, BP expanded its Indonesian operations.

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska: Earlier this year, Alaska sued BP for pipeline leaks that harmed the environment and resulted in several hundred million dollars in lost revenues. In 2007, a federal judge fined BP $20 million and put the company on probation for three years for a spill of over 200,000 gallons of oil from its corroded Prudhoe Bay pipeline, in a ruling the judge called a “serious crime” that easily could have been prevented. Documents and testimony showed that BP knew the pipeline was in chronically poor condition but cut corrosion mitigating efforts to save money. The company later hid documents on their cost-cutting from Congress. In response to written questions from a Congressional committee, BP America President Robert Malone admitted that at the end of 2005 the company had identified 2114 pipeline locations needing corrosive mitigation, and that the number of locations needing mitigation had grown to 3,609 by the end of 2006. He denied cost-cutting had anything to do with oil spills from the corroded pipeline.

Turkey: In 2002, human rights and environmental advocates warned BP’s Turkish pipeline project would result in repression and environmental health hazards. In 2005, BP was accused of involvement in human rights violations, including torture and fair trial violations against campaigners working with affected communities.

Canada: In late 2007, BP announced a $1.5 billion venture into developing “tar sands” oil extraction from Canadian wilderness areas. Tar sands (also called “oil sands”) are deposits of clay and sand saturated with oil (bitumen) in a solid or semi-solid state. Because the deposits are not liquid, they require severely environmentally destructive methods to get them to flow to the surface. Tar sands extraction can produce 3-5 times more CO2 per barrel as conventional oil production, leading climate campaigners to term tar sands oil development “the greatest climate crime in history.”

Kazakhstan: In 2007, top executives at BP were named in a bribery lawsuit alleging the company bribed officials in Kazakhstan to win oil leases there. Environmental destruction and health hazards, including pollution from gas flares, impacts on sturgeon fisheries, and seal deaths, from operations by a consortium of oil companies in the region, including BP, have long been reported.

Price fixing: In 2007, BP paid $303 million to settle civil charges of price-fixing in propane markets. Unsatisfied with the agreement, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce press statement noted that the BP case confirms that “there is market manipulation in the oil and gas industry. We will be assessing whether there is a corporate climate within BP, which allows its traders to engage in a pattern and practice of price manipulation. While BP traders may have been laughing all the way to the bank, this is no laughing matter for those consumers who end up footing the bill.”

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