View from Washington: Obama's BP rhetoric boosts reform agenda

Like it or not, BP may have to give up on the USA. The mood against the company in Washington is becoming that fixed, notwithstanding the Big Oil lobby that is one of the city's most prominent fixtures.

Brits may be concentrating on the impact the company's problems will have on their pensions and in a still broader sense local industry. Some may also feel a historical, imperial attachment to the company, although its original name of British Petroleum has become the new 'freedom fries' for American politicians (and that's including the usually circumspect President Barack Obama who's been unrepentantly slinging out raw meat to the gallery).

The problem is that although both Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared at Toronto's G20 Summit that the company must remain 'strong and stable,' neither seems to view it with much enthusiasm.

Obama's anger is understandable. The wound in the Gulf of Mexico has been open for nearly three months. It is an environmental catastrophe that provides an unending stream of horrible images of pollution for the network's nightly news shows. Lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of livelihoods are at stake and BP's handling of the PR side of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been appalling, even if it has genuinely launched a technological battery against the spill.

In addition, it carried a hint of recidivism. In 2005, 15 workers died and almost 200 were injured following a fire and explosion at BP's Texas City refinery. Civil cases there are ongoing, but the US government has already fined the company for failing to implement safety measures required after the incident. Deepwater has also seen claims that not all necessary safety systems were in place and that dangerous corners were cut, although such judgements must wait on a full, formal inquiry.

Now, another 'what the fuel' moment, with claims that BP was allowed to write the federal environmental review for its proposed Liberty drilling project in Alaska's Beaufort Sea.

Even if BP were a purely American company (and it is a largely American one), its problems might appear insurmountable. After all, it has also become a lightning rod for growing feelings that the energy industry is failing to adapt to concepts such as global warming and Peak Oil - particularly since it tried to recast BP as 'Beyond Petroleum'.

In this light, by attacking BP, Obama promotes his own renewables and energy reform policies.

At the same time, David Cameron has wooed many voters to the Conservative cause with a similar promise of 'greener' thinking for our times. Already faced with selling an especially brutal budget to the UK voter, you can see how he might also feel awkward about forcing Obama into any kind of nationalistic confrontation.

There is a rather nasty undercurrent of anti-Britishness to much of what has happened. Indeed, some of those on Team Obama are urgently counselling that it is time to wind down that type of rhetoric. The problem is that they are not alone in using it, with some of the more cynical members of the American right now also trotting out such drivel.

However for BP, it may all be too late. There is too much in the demerit column, and for the foreseeable future its existing interest in the former Soviet states and elsewhere in the east may offer more opportunity. Because the message from Washington is basically, 'Go east, old chap.'

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