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Was BP Uniquely Reckless?

Last month, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey summoned the chairmen of the world's five big oil companies to testify before Congress. The execs from Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron spent much of their time trying to distance themselves from BP. We wouldn't have poisoned the Gulf the way BP did, they insisted. Unfortunately for them, Waxman and Markey weren't buying it, and noted that all the other oil companies had the exact same error-filled spill-response plans that BP did. "Two other plans are such dead ringers for BP's," Markey pointed out, "that they list a phone number for the same long-dead expert."

Fair enough. Except today's New York Times makes a pretty persuasive case that BP really did stand out in its disregard for safety, and that not all oil companies are equal. First up, Jad Mouwad wrote a profile of ExxonMobil, which revamped its management culture after the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989, and now "stands out among its peers for its obsessive attention to safety." In fact, back in 2006, Exxon ran into problems in a deepwater well similar to what BP faced at Macondo—natural gas kicking up—and the company decided to abandon the well rather than keep drilling. (Exxon was savaged by financial analysts at the time, but the decision looks pretty shrewd in retrospect.)

The picture looks very different when you turn to the Times' excellent profile of BP. The company has a long record of safety violations—in 2005, an aging BP plant in Texas exploded, killing 15 people, and an after-action report blamed "organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP." Then came a large leak that poured 267,000 gallons of oil into Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 2006, thanks to poorly maintained pipes. And just this year, federal inspectors have found 62 safety violations at BP's Ohio refinery. Yet BP never underwent the same cultural shift that ExxonMobil underwent. And, so, in retrospect, it's no surprise that BP cut so many corners:

By the way, that graphic comes from the American Energy Alliance, a group that works on behalf of the oil industry and is pushing to expand drilling in the United States (its also connected with various climate denier groups). The info is sound—it's mainly sourced to Waxman and Markey's investigations—but I thought it was interesting that a petroleum think tank was working hard to slam BP. But it makes sense: It becomes a lot easier to build support for drilling if you can pin the Gulf disaster on BP's unique brand of recklessness rather than the inherent riskiness of deepwater drilling.

It's a hard case to swallow fully, though. Note that while ExxonMobil may have a better safety culture than BP, even its CEO, Rex Tillerson, conceded to Congress last month that the potential for future deepwater spills exists: "[T]hat’s why the emphasis has always been on preventing these things from occurring: because we’re not well equipped to handle them, and that’s just a fact of the enormity of what we’re dealing with." BP may have been spectacularly irresponsible, but that doesn't mean the other companies are immune from future disasters.