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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BP’s Big Problems

Air Date: Week of

BP’s green reputation took a hit after a string of environmental missteps, like this crude oil spill in the North Slope of Alaska. (Photo: BPXA)

BP calls itself "Beyond Petroleum" and won support from some environmentalists for its progressive stance on global warming and a commitment to alternative energy. But that was before an oil spill, leaky pipelines and serious safety issues arose. Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman talks with BP official Ronnie Chappell about the apparent divide between the company's image and actions.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

BP, the world’s second largest oil company, used to be called British Petroleum. But six years ago, it re-branded itself with a new image and a new name: BP, casting itself as an environmentally friendly company. Maybe you’ve seen their TV ads. They present BP as confronting environmental issues head-on.


GELLERMAN: BP has invested heavily in solar and renewable fuels. And the company’s CEO was the first oil exec to acknowledge global warming. But recent events including a fatal refinery fire, allegations of price-fixing of propane, and a corroded pipeline in Alaska have raised questions about BP’s image and commitment to the environment. Here’s Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas taking the company to task.

BARTON: BP’s policies are as rusty as its pipelines. I am very concerned about the specific incident but I am even more concerned about BP’s corporate culture of seeming indifferent to safety and environmental issues. This comes from a company that prides itself – in their ads – on protecting the environment. Shame, shame, shame.

GELLERMAN: In a raft of hearings, Congress has posed tough questions to BP executives. We have our own questions which BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell has agreed to answer. Mr. Chappell, thank you very much.

CHAPPELL: Thanks for having me on.

GELLERMAN: You know, I’m reminded of what P. T. Barnum once said about publicity, “It’s all good as long as you spell my name right.” Um you’ve got some awful publicity lately. They’ve spelled your name right, though.

CHAPPELL: Well, we have had a very difficult 18 months beginning back in March of 2005 with what was the worst tragedy in BP’s history. Fifteen people died, hundreds more injured in a refinery fire. In March of this year we experienced a significant spill on the North Slope in Alaska. And in August we shut down the Prudhoe Bay oil field because we were not confident of the condition of a small section of pipeline. So we understand that people have questions and concern about how we’re operating, and we’re in action to address them.

BP’s green reputation took a hit after a string of environmental missteps, like this crude oil spill in the North Slope of Alaska. (Photo: BPXA)

GELLERMAN: Let’s put a point on it. That pipeline was in awful condition. It hadn’t been inspected for years. It was corroded and terrible. How’d it get like that?

CHAPPELL: Well, actually it had been inspected many times over the years, but we had not used maintenance pigs to clean the line on a routine basis and we hadn’t used smart pigs. But to say that we…

GELLERMAN: These smart pigs, these are kind of devices that travel through, they’re like robots that travel through the pipeline and inspect it.

CHAPPELL: Right. But there are lots of other ways to inspect a pipe and we were doing ultrasonic inspecting of the line on a frequent basis. Checking various points along the line where we would have expected corrosion to occur. We were using huge amounts of corrosion inhibitor injected at the well heads and we were monitoring corrosion coupons. But, you know, in retrospect there was a gap in our program and we’re going to fix it.

A worker monitors the BP crude oil spill in the North Slope of Alaska. /(Photo: BPXA)

GELLERMAN: Members of Congress asked BP’s corrosion expert Richard Woollam – here’s what he had to say.

WOOLLAM: Mr. Chairman, based upon the advice of council, I respectfully will not answer questions based upon my right under the fifth amendment to the United States Constitution.

GELLERMAN: So, Mr. Chappell, why would BP’s corrosion expert take the fifth instead of just answering the question?

CHAPPELL: I’m not going to speak for Mr. Woollam. I would point out that Steve Marshall, president of our business in Alaska, was there and answered every question. Our chairman and president for BP in America was also there. We’re cooperating with the committee. We’re cooperating with the DOT and we’re answering questions. Mr. Woollam has a right to invoke his constitutional right and he did and I think it’s up to him to explain that decision. We encouraged him to cooperate.

GELLERMAN: Here you’ve got your company, BP, being presented to the public as so environmentally concerned, and yet you’ve had all these problems. Doesn’t it ring a little hollow now?

CHAPPELL: I think we should be judged on our actions and not on our words. And if you look at what we did in Alaska. We shut down a pipeline in order to prevent a significant spill. We put the environment before production. If you look at what we’re doing in the area of alternative energy, we’ll spend 8 billion dollars over the next 10 years. We operate one of the largest solar operations in the world. We’re making heavy investments in wind. We have a plan for building a power plant in Southern California that will generate electricity from hydrogen fuel.

GELLERMAN: What about repairing your image in terms of publicity?

CHAPPELL: We’re going to focus on getting our operations right, and let our actions speak on our behalf.

GELLERMAN: Ronnie Chappell is spokesperson for BP. Mr. Chappell, thank you very much.

CHAPPELL: Thank you.



U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on BP pipeline problems

U.S. Senate Energy committee hearing on BP pipelines

BP on Alaska pipeline corrosion

BP on Texas City "incident"


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