Ever since the Deepwater Horizon spill began on April 20, commentators have been playing the game of “what if?” What if George W. Bush were in office: Would criticism of the president be harsher? The answer is: of course. Most commentators and analysts understand that President Obama embodies that elite intellectual class—“the adversary culture,” in Lionel Trilling’s term—that despises commercial and industrial civilization. Consequently, people reasonably presume that he neither has nor will cut BP any slack—indeed that he will not even deal with it justly. Were President Bush in office, the opposite presumptions would prevail, and rightly so.
But there are two other games of “what if?” that might be played and that are also instructive. What if ExxonMobil had been responsible for the oil spill? BP, as we are constantly reminded, no longer stands for “British Petroleum,” and some may remember that back in 2000 the company declared
that its new name of “BP” (as well as its suburst logo of green, yellow, and white) stood for “the new company’s aspirations: ‘better people, better products, big picture, beyond petroleum.’” In short, for at least a decade, BP has been the environmentalists favorite oil company, a fact little mentioned in recent days. Yes, it is now being reviled as an oil company, but its wider attitude and philosophy has not been subjected to vilification or indeed to scrutiny. Did corporate culture somehow have a role in the spill? ExxonMobil, by contrast, is the oil company environmentalists love to hate, not least because it has occasionally pushed back
on issues such as global warming. What if ExxonMobil has been responsible for the Deepwater Horizon spill? Well, just for starters, every remark the company had ever made doubting the virtues of wind and sun, or questioning the imminent apocalypse of global warming would be declared refuted. And every defender of our hydrocarbon economy who had ever taken a dime from ExxonMobil would be shunned as forever tainted.
The third “what if” involves Tony Hayward. What if his predecesscor, John Browne, were still CEO of BP? What many people do not realize is that, so far as the media are concerned, Tony Hayward is playing the role of George W. Bush to Browne’s
Barack Obama. Browne, who came up through the finance side of British Petroleum, was CEO of BP from 1989 to 2007, and during his tenure, he devoted much of his efforts to (a) growth through merger rather than exploration, and (b) positioning BP as a “green” company. As the friend of Labour prime minister Tony Blair, Browne became Sir John Browne in 1998 and Baron Browne of Madingley in 2001. He kept homes in Cambridge, London, and Venice. And his fall from power was as close to heroic martyrdom as our contemporary culture acknowledges: he was outed by a homosexual lover whom he had met through the escort service “Suited and Booted.” Alas for Tony Hayward
: He is just a bourgeois geologist who rose through the exploration side of British Petroleum and now lives in Kent with his wife and children.