Only the ducks are dead

BP has this great reputation for being an environmentally friendly and responsible company. I know it because their incessant television ads tell me it's true. The ones that flank the national news stories about their horrendous safety record of explosions and worker deaths or their catastrophic oil spills. Those ads. When something happens they start the noise machine and appear to be the innocent party let down by their lessee.

BP ("British Petroleum") is a British Company operating in the US. A US company operating in Britain is called Innospec. You probably never heard of them because most of the world doesn't use their product, although they used to. They make tetraethyl lead for gasoline. Lead has been banned in gasoline in the US and Europe since the 1970s and 80s. The result has been a precipitous drop in childhood lead levels. But it is still allowed in a few countries. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was one. If you breathe you get lead poisoning there. If you got shot with a bullet you still got lead poisoning, although you weren't breathing. You couldn't win.

Indonesia didn't ban leaded gasoline until a few years ago, decades after the rest of the world. Innospec, the only maker of the lead additives, was only too happy to sell it to them. Not just happy. They made it happen by "systematic and large scale" bribery of Indonesian officials, in the words of a British judge:

Innospec concentrated its efforts on a small number of developing countries. Mitchell said that "despite worldwide environmental and health pressure to change to unleaded fuel" Innospec used middlemen to pay bribes of up to $17m to "sweeten" Indonesian government officials between 1999 and 2006. These bribes secured orders worth $170m.

Indonesia had intended to phase out TEL and leaded fuel from 1999 but Innospec set up a slush fund to bribe officials to block legislative change until 2006 and prolong its sales there, Mitchell said. (Rob Evans, The Guardian)

The whole rotten scheme was discovered during the investigation of the "oil for food" program involving kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime, then under international sanctions. Document discovery of Iraq kickbacks also uncovered the Indonesian ones. The results was a years long investigation by UK's Serious Fraud Office resulting in a record fine $12.7 million and another $25 million in the US for the Iraq kickbacks. That may sound like serious money (and it is for most of us), but it is estimated that the $17 million in bribes they paid Indonesia brought them $170 million in business. That puts them over $100 million ahead, even after counting the bribes and the record fines. Not much disincentive, I'd say. Prison terms might work better.

Not to worry, though:

Nicholas Purnell QC, for Innospec, told the court that the US-owned firm had undergone a "sea-change" and come clean and reformed itself. (The Guardian)

That's a relief. And I'm sure BP has learned their lesson, too, and won't blow up any more workers or spill any more oil. After all, the gargantuan costs they have incurred in the latest clean-up is said to amount to only 4 days profit. So neither BP nor Innospec are Dead Ducks. The dead ducks are floating in the Gulf.

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Thanks Revere,

On this oil spill , BP is repeating many of the failed worker protection policies from the Exxon valdez cleanup in 1989. On that cleanup, one in ten workers was seriously injuried and most of the 3,000 beach cleanup workers were sick from expsoures to weathered oil and other hazardous materials. Hundreds of cleanup workers have chronic illness from their spill exposures. Exxon told cleanup workers that weathered oil was not hazardous and BP is repeating that in their training on the Gulf spill now. Sadly, too many Federal agency staff, including from OSHA, are repeating BPs lies.

Given the known effects of leaded gas I think the management should be put in jail for murder.

Right along with CEOs of tobacco companies.
And arms manufacturers.
That'd be a good start.

By hat_eater (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

george: Only relationship I know is that neither of them cares about people.

As was pointed out to me in a different thread: these days they aren't called 'British Petroleum' and haven't been since 2001. It is now BP plc, and they are a multinational corporation (took over Amoco amongst others).

Doesn't change that their environmental record is utterly atrocious, but I'm afraid you can't entirely blame the British for them anymore ;)

I think it is amazing that changing your name is so easy for large companies, and seems to be seen as a good alternative to actually clearing up their act. That "BP" is now not supposed to stand for anything is, to exaggerate a little, an offense against everyone attempting to use the English language for actual communication.

I've not found a good overview of when European countries actually banned leaded gasoline, but it appears to have been only in the 2000s that Spain finally completely withdrew it - and there are even claims that the UK is now again selling small amounts of it.

I was hoping to find that the disrespect for human life and public health was a myth. The opposite appears to be true: from when the fraudulent decision was made to label TEL as "ethyl", thus keeping silent about the lead content, to the Indonesian affair, there just doesn't appear to be any concern here.

Indonesia's main island of Java is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth - 120 million people living as closely together as they do in US cities.