You can't plug this satire spill

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A17

And sometimes, life imitates farce.

Thus the spectacle of BP's chief executive, Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward, spending the weekend at a yacht race. Actually, watching his own yacht race. In an event called the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.

You could make this stuff up, but then you'd be Christopher Buckley, skewerer of Beltway pretensions and corporate numbskullery. Every oil-soaked day, the gulf disaster seems more like a Buckley production: "Thank You for Spilling."

Or maybe "The White House Mess, Revisited." In this Buckley novel, the president orders up "Operation Open Door," a daily session with an "ordinary American." After President Obama's Haywardian 18 holes of golf, that might be in order -- except that he already gets a daily stack of letters from everyday American citizens.

Consider the farcical events so far:

-- The ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee offers a groveling apology to the oil company's CEO after one of the worst environmental disasters in American history.

What satirist could then top Texas Republican Joe Barton's coerced, linguistically mangled fauxpology? "If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction." Translation: It's your fault for hearing me right the first time.

-- The agency responsible for overseeing drilling approves a disaster plan that includes details for protecting the gulf's walrus population and instructions to contact a scientist who died five years ago.

This was par for the course at the Minerals Management Service. According to its inspector general, one official said he took industry gifts but only from "good friends that I wouldn't write up anyway." One was in job negotiations with a company whose drilling platforms he was inspecting. Another turned up for work buzzed on crystal meth.

-- The Swedish chairman of the British polluter emerges from the White House to proclaim corporate concern for the "small people." Imagine the musical theater possibilities, a duet of Carl-Henric Svanberg and Hayward channeling "Camelot":

Svanberg: Oh what do the small people do?

With pelicans covered in goo?

Hayward: They scrub them and they scrub them,

While we are on our yacht.

Together: Oh that's what small people do.

Svanberg: Like we care.

Hayward: I think not.

There is, as with any good parody, a serious point lurking here -- the difficulty of dislodging an entrenched culture, whether corporate or political. Changing stripes is not as hazardous as deep-water drilling, but it is a similarly difficult operation to execute. The nuclear industry, facing an existential threat in the aftermath of Three Mile Island, managed to do it. So did Exxon, in the wake of Exxon Valdez.

BP, by contrast, was better at prettying up its logo than cleaning up its act. To read about the company's earlier preventable accidents is to experience a chilling sense of been there, spilled that.

Tom Bower, in his exquisitely timed "Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century," describes how a consulting firm BP hired to examine the effects of cost-cutting at its Texas City refinery concluded: "We have never seen a site where the notion 'I could die today' was so real." Two months later, an explosion killed 15 employees.

How bad was BP's behavior? Bower quotes Barton -- yes, Mr. Apology -- complaining, after another spill, about "BP's corporate culture of seeming indifference to safety and environmental issues." The Deepwater Horizon disaster is not a story about when bad things happen to good companies.

Barton's sense of injury on BP's behalf was so galling because it was so obviously heartfelt, such a pure expression of the GOP's "business of America is business" mentality. Credit to Minority Leader John Boehner for good political judgment and quick execution in obtaining Barton's about-face. But Barton's corporate sympathies are no accident. They are deeply embedded in the GOP's DNA.

As for the Minerals Management Service -- problem solved. As of Monday, it doesn't exist. It is, now, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. (In a better, Buckleyesque world, this would be rearranged for the acronym BOOMER.) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's renaming has a certain lipstick-on-a-pig quality at an agency in which one manager helpfully explained, "Obviously, we're all oil industry." Obviously.

Remember the joke: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: The light bulb has to want to change.

Do any of the players in this debacle? You'll forgive me if I have my doubts.


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