The Ethics of Crisis: The Human Toll of BP’s Calamity in the Gulf

BP’s oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico vividly illustrates that when things spill out of control in a disaster, some damages can’t be contained.

The greatest lesson  from BP’s crisis, I think, is for leaders to recognize they have a responsibility to society that goes beyond charitable donations or sustainable and “green” initiatives. What defines corporate citizenship, and a company’s integrity as well as soul, is something bigger. It is how its leaders see their companies in relation to humanity, viewing everyone as a stakeholder whether or not they buy their product or service.

If because of what a company produces or sells, it has the potential to inflict public harm if something goes wrong, it no longer works for leaders to stand behind how “unlikely” such an occurrence might be.

Instead it is imperative that organizations have comprehensive “what if” plans to deter or address potential harm from unintended consequences. With all of BP’s resources, this was apparently lacking. No company should put others at risk.

In February 2009, BP told the federal government in an environmental impact plan for Deepwater Horizon well that a spill was “unlikely” and if it happened “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.” The government accepted BP’s report apparently without challenge. How could that be?

Prior to BP CEO Tony Hayward testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee June 17, 2010, he received a 14 page letter from Committee Chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). The letter indicated that based on documents and emails BP was required to provide, “the evidence… calls into question multiple decisions made by BP. Time after time, it appears, BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense.”

On its website, BP says, “We are committed to the protection of the natural environment, to the safety of communities in which we operate, and to the health, safety, and security of our people.” So this begs the question of the nature of the commitment and how it can be stronger going forward. Leaders have the opportunity to close the gap and by their actions symbolize a company’s character. Hayward’s comment in May about wanting his life back, and his showing up at a UK yacht race fed cynicism that BP didn’t care.

In that spirit, a Twitter account was launched over a month ago called BP Global PR , a parody of BP PR. It now has over 179,000 followers for tweets like, “Keep in mind, the more your interest in the oil spill wanes, the less damage the oil does.” The Twitter account is also raising money for the clean up. BP has complained to Twitter about the account.

The faces of the tragedy in the Gulf are seen daily in pictures online, in papers, and on TV. The stories behind the pictures aren’t always known.

On June 23, 2010, charter boat captain and local leader William Allen Kruse of Foley, Alabama killed himself. His fishing business, as well as his wife’s seafood business, were among the spills’ casualties affecting the travel, tourism, fishing, and restaurant industries and small businesses throughout the Gulf. To support his family, two weeks before his death, Kruse started working for BP using his boats in the clean up effort  A few days before he died, he  filled out a 52-page BP form the company requires to justify lost income. BP has said it would pay for his funeral. More grief counselors have been sent to counties in Alabama, as well as throughout the Gulf states; BP is helping pay for this.

There is so much at stake — people, their ability to earn a living, sea and wild life, habitats, the ocean, and really the future of our planet. Will business and governments globally learn from this spill so that we don’t put ourselves through this again, or will it be like BP Global PR says, the less you think about it, the less damage you see?

Gael O’Brien,  June 28, 2010

The Week in Ethics


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Crisis: The Human Toll of BP’s Calamity in the Gulf

  1. Pingback: The Week in Ethics: Benefit Corporations, A Path Away from Crises « Gael O’Brien The Week in Ethics: Columns on Ethics, Leadership and Life

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