How to Make a Political Football out of a Massive Environmental Disaster? (5th article on Deepwater Horizon). Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In Act 2, scene 7 of Shakespeare’s play,  As You Like it, Jaques tells the audience that, “All the world’s a stage.”  Shakespearean scholars tell us that the theatrical metaphor was a cliché, even in Shakespeare’s time.  In the play Jacques tries to give the metaphor a bit more depth by linking it to the Seven Ages of Man. In contrast, the way the various actors have dealt with the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has been nakedly political and even hypocritical.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created a particular problem for President Barack Obama. As I wrote in a previous article, three weeks before the accident the President had cleared the way for deep sea exploration off the U.S. coast. At the very least, this decision was embarrassing, as it emerged that his advisors were completely unaware of the serious dangers involved in deep sea exploration.

Though the President did visit the Gulf Coast within days of the tragedy, it was obvious to everyone that, despite his exalted political office and the wonders of modern technology, there was very little he could do about capping the ruptured well.  In fact, he was completely dependent on BP and other companies in the  private sector  to achieve this goal.  As the oil continued to gush out from the ocean floor in quantities much larger than originally predicted and reach land in Louisiana, there was a distinct danger of a nasty back lash against the president.

Though the facts do not support the judgement, commentators were beginning to make the comparison between President Obama’s response to loss of life and widespread pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with President George W Bush’s lackadaisical response to Hurricane Katrina when it slammed into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in 2005.

By mid-June tempers were fraying right across the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida and much of the anger was being focused on BP. Anti-British sentiments  emerged in the local media and at rallies staged by those most affected by the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. Public boycotts of BP’s stations were organised across many states and sales dropped by more than 25% in May 2010.  Bumper stickers proclaiming “BP sucks” appeared on many vehicles and many called on President Obama to stand up more resolutely to BP.[1] Some suggested that President Obama was soft on BP because it had contributed to his election campaign.

In an effort to deflect this unfair criticism President Obama subtly lent his voice to the anti-British campaign by referring to the company as British Petroleum even though the company had dropped that name some years ago.  On NBC’s Today Show President Obama insisted that he was not being differential to BP. His phrase “….so I know whose ass to kick” made banner headlines right across the world. Putting tar and feathers on a ‘foreign’ country may play to a particular constituency in the U.S and portray President Obama as a strong and fearless leader who is in control of the situation, but Obama knows that BP is a giant multi-national company which employs hundreds of people in the U.S. Some of the people who  vented their anger at BP, including state and federal employees, would be surprised to learn that a significant percentage of their pension fund is invested in BP. In fact, 40% of BP’s dividend is paid to U.S, investors.[2] A fall in BP’s share price will have a major impact on their pensions.

Making a scapegoat out of BP also deflects the spotlight away from other U.S. companies which were also involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Only 8 out of the 126 people who were on the rig when the blow-out took place were directly employed by BP. The rig was owned and operated by a U.S. company called Transocean. The blowout preventer technology was manufactured by a U.S. company, Cameron and the cement which was supposed to cap the well came from Halliburton. Dick Cheney, the former vice-president worked for that company.

The anti-British rhetoric played out quite differently on the other side of the Atlantic.  Lord Tebbit, accused President Obama of “displaying a ‘despicable’ attitude.”  Next week I will reflect on the pressure which the disaster has put on the ‘special’ relationship which is supposed to exist between the U.S. and Britain.


[1] Suzanne Goldenberg, Paul Harris, Julia Kollewe, Anushka Asthana, Jamie Doward, “Tide of anger may turn an ecological tragedy into a political nightmare,” The Observer, June 13, 2010, pages 28 and 29.

[2] ibid

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