Stephen Foley: Heavy whiff of politics hangs over BP fine

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The Independent Online

US Outlook: There is something more than a little fishy about the $87.4m (£53m) fine levied on BP by the US Occupational Safety and Health Authority, over alleged failings at its troubled Texas City oil refinery.

The deaths of 15 people at the plant in March 2005 was BP's blackest day, and – along with an environmentally catastrophic oil spill in Alaska around the same time – revealed that the company's shiny green image was more marketing trick than real corporate policy.

But four years after signing up to a list of safety improvements at the plant, and accepting a first OSHA fine of $21.3m, it has been diligently working to instill a better safety culture, and has been funding upgrade work along the lines agreed with the regulator. It is work that has won support from the unions, whose criticisms of shoddy management and underinvestment were ignored before the blast.

It was only late last year that it started to appear as if BP and its regulator disagreed over the timing of the improvement works – a moment that coincided with a change of leadership in Washington. Regulators, whose senior staff are all political appointees, are acutely sensitive to these political winds. In that context, the desire for headline-grabbing fines is not unnatural. But given BP's good faith, this is a case where there should have been plenty of opportunity for compromise.

The oil giant has every right to feel hard done by, when one apparently agreed timetable is ripped up in favour of a tighter one, and it is then fined four times as much for the supposed delay as it was for the egregious safety lapses that caused the deaths of so many.

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