The Oil and the Glory

When is it time to say goodbye to a company?

What do you do with an outlaw company? With Enron, the market acted, and destroyed it. Then Broadway put on a play (pictured above), and that didn’t work out so well either. With Arthur Andersen, management surrendered after an indictment on criminal obstruction charges, and broke up the accounting firm pre-emptively. But what about BP ...

Andy Kropa/Getty Images
Andy Kropa/Getty Images

What do you do with an outlaw company? With Enron, the market acted, and destroyed it. Then Broadway put on a play (pictured above), and that didn’t work out so well either. With Arthur Andersen, management surrendered after an indictment on criminal obstruction charges, and broke up the accounting firm pre-emptively. But what about BP — six years of catastrophic accidents, 26 deaths, a case of market manipulation and now a fundamental contract violation make it a serial bad actor.

Does such recidivism signal essential untrustworthiness? And if so, is there anything to do if both the market and management fail to act and establish more responsible stewardship?

In the case of nations, this is an irreproachable question. In Egypt and Tunisia, long years of irresponsible leadership have led to ousters embraced by the West and much of the remainder of the world. In the case of Iraq, though controversial, the Bush Administration — agitated over Saddam Hussain — invaded. These are examples just of our current era, but the practice goes back to the beginning of the historical record. Read on to the jump.

Yet when it comes to companies, we rarely observe such reformist zeal. Before exploring BP’s record, I want to say that my own experience is wholly contrary to the incidents below — as I observed on multiple visits, BP followed an obsessive safety regime while building the 1,000-mile-long Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean, for instance. I have many friends and acquaintances in BP who are among the best in the business. But there is no getting around the history.

In March 2005, 15 workers died and 170 were injured in an explosion at BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas. Three years later, a supervisor was killed at the plant. When the company failed to implement promised safety improvements in order to prevent further accidents, it was slapped with further fines. Last year, BP announced it is selling the refinery.

A year later, some 6,300 barrels of oil spilled into the Alaskan wilderness from a 16-mile stretch of corroded feeder pipeline connected to the 800-mile-long trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The line is managed by BP, which was fined $20 million.

In 2007, BP paid a $303 million fine to settle accusations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that it conspired to corner the market for propane gas. And just two months ago, U.S. regulators said they will recommend charges against BP for alleged manipulation of the natural gas market in 2008.

Last year, 11 men died and 5 million barrels of oil spilled in the blowout of the Macondo oil well. BP says the accident has multiple culprits, and last week sued the alleged others.

Finally, three months ago BP disregarded commitments to its most important single partner in the world — AAR, with whom it produces a full quarter of its total global oil output — and signed a big accord to work with state-owned Rosneft. BP was contractually obliged to offer first-right-of-refusal for any deal on Russian soil to AAR. If the lapse was missed by AAR, BP would have managed one of the slickest maneuvers of recent years — just a few months after the worst oil spill in decades, it would have gotten a head start in the exploration of the Arctic Sea, which experts think contains most of the world’s remaining untapped oil and natural gas. Only, the oversight did not go unnoticed. AAR sued and won in European tribunals. The deal very much resembled a long list of Russia’s own trampling of contracts and shareholder rights, which the West has denounced for many years. In a nutshell, BP was in bed with the ultra-powerful Igor Sechin, and thought wrongly that his influence would trump its obligations to AAR. As of now, the BP-Rosneft deal is dead.

The final example is telling. After the monumental PR damage inflicted by Macondo, BP’s new CEO, Bob Dudley, who last July vowed to usher in a new age of responsibility, went straight out and personally negotiated and signed a flagrantly illegal contract, as two European tribunals have ruled.

After each of the incidents above, BP has said it was just one of those things, and pledged to repent. Yet it has also sought the cover of the herd. Since Macondo, Dudley has suggested that there is a lesson for the entire industry, seriously irritating Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. Why is Tillerson irritated? Because after Exxon’s own signature catastrophic accident two decades ago — the Valdez supertanker spill — the company instituted the tightest safety regime in the industry, and has suffered no recurrence. Tillerson thinks the problem is not systemic, but that of a single bad actor.

I’ve also written that the industry as a whole needs to sharpen its game, yet Tillerson has a point. In six years, we have three major accidents, market manipulation, and contract infidelity. One after another, three CEOs vowed yet failed to transform the system. About two weeks ago, BP shareholders overwhelmingly re-affirmed Dudley’s position as CEO.

The market has not been entirely supine. BP’s share price is still down by 22 percent since the April 20, 2010, Macondo spill. Yet the incident in Russia — which in my view raises serious questions of judgment and competence on the part of Dudley — has evoked barely a yawn. The share price has been essentially flat since the Rosneft deal was signed and went south.

Even if you do have hundreds of great people in the company, BP’s culture is extremely problematic. Short of serious criminality, laws do not permit a government-led off-with-his-head approach applied to bad dictators. As for a market response, one might ask what type of incident would trigger a company-changing selloff. The type that forces a lopping off of the entire top of the company, and a true transformation of the culture. Or its acquisition by a more responsible rival.

A second question is why shareholders are waiting.

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