It is an event with which I am slightly ashamed—and even the excuse that it happened over twenty years ago and that I was only a bit player does not quite take away from it. I had recently left university and was working in London as a lobbyist, although we preferred to call ourselves "public affairs advisers." Given that I was one of the few with left leanings in the company, I didn’t tend to get asked to work for the big corporations, and had, in fact, begun to carve a little niche as someone who advised local authorities and other public bodies.
But then the news broke that an oil platform in the North Sea had exploded killing 167 people. It was July 6th, 1988, and the Piper Alpha platform was an inferno of flames. Since many of the first to be killed were those who would have organzed the evacuation of the burning platform, even more lives were lost. Piper Alpha was responsible for 10% of North Sea oil extracted at that time, and since it was linked to nearby platforms which continued to pump oil and gas into the stricken structure, this was the biggest disaster ever to strike the North Sea oil industry.
An immediate inquiry was launched under the auspices of Lord Cullen, and, anxious that the oil industry be able to put forth its case, the UK Offshore Oil Operators Association set up a press and inquiry office – where yours truly came in. My job, as I recall, was to field press calls and refer them to the relevant expert or spokesman. I can’t say that I ever recall anyone telling an untruth, but then there was never any doubt—and excuse the pun—that the whole operation was designed to spread oil on troubled media waters.
I mention this because Piper Alpha was owned by Occidental, an American company. And I mention this because in all of the U.S. media coverage of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the perceived villain of the piece, BP, there has been no mention of Occidental and Piper Alpha at all. BP, often referred to as "British Petroleum" by President Obama, is of course part-owned by Amoco and hasn’t been called British Petroleum in years. So whatever the failings of BP and some of its admittedly British head honchos—and they are manifest—there is little reason for Obama and others to harp on about "British Petroleum" unless of course what they are really saying is that they "don't like Brits." They might like to know that throughout the Piper Alpha disaster and its aftermath, there was not a single breath of anti-American sentiment from the British government or people.
I don't blame President Obama and those most closely affected for being absolutely furious, more especially as public opprobrium is being heaped upon the President. It is as though he is personally responsible for the technical decisions of deep water drillers. And while running for President, Obama made plenty of sensible noises about the need for alternative energy sources, just as the ludicrous Sarah Palin was being serenaded by the mantra "drill, baby, drill!”
The disaster that has struck the southern states will have to be paid for by BP, and others who were part of that operation. It is unlikely that many of the BP senior managers in frontline positions will survive long-time. Meanwhile, the big question remains: How much time will it take for local ecology and the fisheries to recover?
But as Obama moves away from the rhetoric of wanting to "kick" BP’s well upholstered ass, he is now questioning America’s dependence on the black stuff. And moving into this territory not only gives him the power to re-orient America’s dependence on oil, but finally kill off any plans to drill off the coast of Alaska. More to the point, this is his great opportunity to turn his guns on the Republican right, with Sarah "drill, baby, drill!" Palin his number one target.