Bruce Anderson: Obama, not BP, is the villain of this piece

Monday 07 June 2010 00:00

The evidence is overwhelming. Any fair-minded person who examines the Gulf of Mexico oil spillage is compelled to two conclusions. First, that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by BP. Second, that the President of the United States has behaved disgracefully.

The vessels of the Los Angeles class, the pride of the US nuclear submarine fleet, will not operate below 950ft. If they were to dive to 1450ft, their hulls would implode. The Americans do have three subs which could function at 2,000ft. They cost $3bn each. It follows that drilling for oil below a 5,000ft seabed is a difficult business which involves risks. But it is essential.

The modern world depends on oil. Over the next 20 years, merely to meet increased demand and replace declining production in mature fields, we will need the equivalent of two new Middle Easts or four new Saudi Arabias. In view of this, there is a clear need to explore alternatives to oil. BP has been in the forefront of such rational exploration, into energy sources that are economically viable and which would provide enough energy. Lord Browne, BP's former chief executive, almost wanted to rename the company "Beyond Petroleum". There was only one caveat. The world is in no condition to move beyond petroleum.

But fresh supplies have been harder to come by. That is why the big oil companies have been drilling in deeper and deeper waters over the past 20 years. That is why most oil analysts can see no alternative to exploration in the Atlantic and the Arctic. It also explains the recent interest in the Falklands. Above all, it explains the extent of the drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the fastest-growing oil region in the world, now producing 30 per cent of the US's oil needs.

Oilmen have always known that they were dealing with a dangerous substance. Hollywood may have romanticised Red Adair, who was famous for tackling blowouts, but when it came to dealing with a volatile substance, when a mere spark at the wrong moment could lead to disaster, romanticism always had its limits. Now, when drilling has to contend with the rigours of the elements and the depths of the sea, the realists must always prevail over the romantics.

They do. All the major oil companies – including BP – are obsessed with safety. They have offices and laboratories full of expensive scientists who think about nothing else. Amidst many daily preoccupations, the chap who fills up his car on the garage forecourt may be excused for assumimg that he is merely turning on a tap. Those who ensure his supplies know better. They also know that the oil must keep flowing if the world is to keep functioning.

The history of the modern oil industry is punctuated by disasters: Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha, Texas City. The history of modern aviation is also punctuated by disasters, too numerous to mention and far more costly in casualties. When a plane crashes, no one suggests that flying should be banned. It would be equally absurd to force all oil rigs to cease drilling.

There is a lot of absurdity about. The international left has always hated the oil industry; the oil well and the motor car are two of capitalism's principal heraldic devices. It might have been hoped that the anti-oil nonsense would subside with the blowout of Marxism: not so. The poisonous gases merely found another vent: the extremities of the Green movement, and especially Greenpeace, which would like to deny mankind the energy resources upon which civilisation depends.

At the moment, the Greens are able to win naive support by exaggerating the threat which oil-drilling poses to the environment. No one wants oil in the sea; for a start, it is a waste of a valuable product. But as Tony Hayward has reminded us – unwisely: at some moments, it is impossible to deal with a political-hysteria blowout – there is an awful lot of sea. Oil is organic and as such bio-degradable, especially in warmer water. The 1991 oil spills after the first Gulf War were supposed to threaten an environmental catastrophe. It took about two years for the Persian Gulf to return to normal.

In the Gulf of Mexico, there are difficulties with fishing and tourism. These should not be exaggerated. Some of the lemming media would have us believe that the Louisiana coast is inhabited by pre-lapsarian fisher-folk whose arcadian tranquility has now been violated by the brutalities of BP. In reality, oil accounts for 80 per cent of Louisiana's gross domestic product. Many of the fishermen have relatives in the oil industry. The price they obtain for their catch is heavily influenced by the buoyancy of the oil dollar. BP has made it clear that those whose livelihoods are affected will be compensated. Five hundred loss adjusters are now at work, and have already accepted more than 31,000 claims. Has anyone ever met an insurance claimant who understated his loss?

The real threat to Louisiana's economy, and to America's, comes from President Obama. His moratorium on offshore drilling will cost jobs, despite the recent evidence that the American private-sector recovery is weak. But the President is not interested in jobs, except one: his own. In one respect, it is surprising that recent events have redounded so badly on Mr Obama. Government agencies were on the scene rapidly. There was a much greater sense of grip than over Hurricane Katrina. But the Gulf spillage appears to have crystallised many Americans' doubts about their President.

There is a problem. In the Liberal media, Mr Obama's rhetorical skills have been grotesquely overrated. He is not a good speaker. Presidents Reagan and Clinton were naturals, while George Bush Jnr could give a superb performance from a prepared text. But Barack Obama's delivery is cold and introverted. The presidency is a strange office, its incumbents caught between regular illusions of omnipotence and equally regular frustrations of Congressional constraint. The only way to break out of Lilliput is to use the White House as a bully pulpit. This President cannot do that, because he cannot make Americans feel good about themselves.

There may be an explanation for this. Nobody knows what Mr Obama believes. During his brief period in the Senate, he took ultra-left wing positions on almost everything. This delighted Democrat activists, and turned him into a presidential candidate. Once he had secured his base, he dumped almost all the leftism in pursuit of electability. But there was a price to pay for all this manoeuvring: the loss of his political soul. That means a chronic political crisis. A President who does not know who he is cannot reassure his fellow Americans.

Instead, he has to defame BP. To listen to Mr Obama, one might have thought that BP was run by George III and Lord North, with Lord Cornwallis in charge of safety – and there is worse.

It has been 10 years since BP stopped calling itself British Petroleum (patriots could be tempted to conclude that its present misfortunes are divine punishment). Yet the President constantly reverts to the old name, as if "British" were a term of abuse. Not only is Britain the US's most important ally. BP has 24,000 American employees and 10,000 British ones. So when he denigrates this great company, Mr Obama is damaging US interests as well as British ones. There is another inescapable conclusion. He has no interest in either.

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