The Benefit Of The Doubt

August 2010 Vol. 237 No. 8

Jeff Share, Editor

Question: Which is the worst comment ever uttered in response to a blowout?

  • “I’m amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.” Fred Hartley, CEO, Union Oil, Santa Barbara oil spill 1969. (His actual statement, according to Union Oil, was: “I am always tremendously impressed at the publicity that the death of birds receives versus the loss of people in our country in this day and age.”
  • “There’s no use crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited over this thing,” followed by “What we need is a good hurricane.” Texas Gov. Bill Clements, 1979, after a blowout in Campeche Bay in the Gulf of Mexico by the Ixtock 1 drilling rig owned by Sedco, a company he founded in 1947 and controlled by his family at the time of the accident. Clements made the “hurricane” comment as the spill began smearing a pristine part of the Texas coastline.
  • “I’d like to have my life back.” Tony Hayward, CEO BP, Deepwater Horizon blowout, 2010.

Hartley was known for being too blunt at times. The result galvanized a fledgling environmental movement that has never turned away from its disdain of the petroleum industry.

Clements’ comments resulted in embarrassing the governor’s office, the state of Texas, and perpetuating the myth of an industry with little or no regard for the environment.

Hayward, now former CEO, was apparently groggy from lack of sleep. How else could he have forgotten that 11 men were would not get their lives back, many more were injured and countless lives were thrown into chaos as they helplessly watched the Gulf turn into a toilet bowl? The result is that the industry has lost the benefit of the doubt with those who had viewed our business with an open mind. That may be the biggest price of all from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Case #1: Opposition is organizing against development of the vast Marcellus Shale, claiming among other things, that the fracing process used to drill the wells could threaten water supplies. Fracing has been done for decades and if done properly, problems have been minimal at worst.

Case #2: Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House energy committee, wants Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to veto the $7 billion expansion of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline that would double imports of crude from the Canadian oil sands.

The Wall Street Journal reported that environmentalists at public hearings insist all oil projects are getting riskier and need tighter oversight as sources of crude become scarcer. Others said they fear that leaks from the pipeline would threat the Gulf region on land. There may be some merit to the first issue; as to the pipeline risk, will the next step be to block all future pipeline construction? What about pipe already in the ground?

At first, I understood the drilling moratorium in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, neither the country nor the industry can afford another catastrophe. Terrible decisions were made and those involved will pay heavily. Whether they should be allowed to work again in U.S. waters is also a reasonable question.

The industry has never denied the job of finding oil and gas involves hazards. That’s why safety is paramount to those responsible for exploration and production as well as transmission.

These meetings are dead-serious and should be mandatory for any company that works in that part of the business. In recent years, some companies may have neglected to participate as fully as they should. In those cases, perhaps safety isn’t their “core value,” as the industry likes to call it. Unless you are directly involved with upper management, you don’t what a company’s real values are.

But you know what happens when you lose that benefit of the doubt? No one wants to believe you.

(P&GJ Editor Jeff Share won a second-place award for magazine columns in the 2010 Lone Star Awards sponsored by the Houston Press Club. The column published in March 2009 was entitled A Letter To President Obama and detailed the benefits of natural gas in any future energy policy).