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For all its blunders, BP didn't cut and run

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, May 28, 2010

BP is coming in for plenty of abuse these days, and certainly much of it is deserved. Mistakes made by BP officials, or contractors and suppliers they engaged and supervised, led to a preventable explosion that killed 11 people and unleashed an environmental disaster of immense but still unknown proportion. Compounding those initial mistakes has been a failure to anticipate such a disaster and have an adequate response plan in place.

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It is now clear that the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico has been badly damaged, perhaps irreparably, affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.

The future of offshore oil drilling is now in question, with implications not only for the rest of the oil and gas industry but also for energy prices and energy policies here and around the world.

So extensive is the damage, and so great are its potential liabilities, that BP's very existence is now at stake -- a company that until a few weeks ago was posting annual profits of $14 billion with a market valuation in excess of $180 billion.

As corporate screw-ups go, it just doesn't get any bigger than this one -- and the damn hole still isn't plugged.

My purpose today, however, is not to bury BP but to praise it.

When confronted with such crises, corporate executives instinctively head for the bunker, withhold information, deny responsibility and drag their feet on efforts to clean up the mess they've created. That's a natural human reaction, particularly when people have died, jobs are on the line, the stock price is plummeting and the whole thing is playing out 24/7 on cable television. This bunker mentality is further encouraged by the army of lawyers who inevitably show up on the scene, whose sole concern is preventing criminal sanctions and reducing civil damages.

But to their credit, rather than respond in ways you would expect them to, BP and its executives have generally responded in ways you'd want them to.

From the start, the company has declared that it is ultimately responsible for what happened and responsible for making things right, waiving any liability limits it might be entitled to under federal law.

The company's chief executive, Tony Hayward, moved from London to the gulf, personally overseeing operations, visiting with government officials and conducting regular news interviews where his contrition seemed genuine.

At its own expense, the company mustered a private army, navy and air force to disperse the oil, contain the spill and clean up the damage on shore.

It flew in experts from around the world to devise and execute strategies for capturing the leaking oil and plugging the leak, sparing no expense.


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