It is unusual to feel sympathy for a big oil company,
especially one responsible for a major environmental disaster.
However, it is in everyone’s interest to resist any attempt
by politicians to turn business into a scapegoat for their own failures. This
is the subtext of a lot of the criticism, coming from politicians of both major
parties in the United States, of BP’s failure to clean up a major oil spill off
the Gulf Coast.
After all, it was the Obama Administration which recently
approved an expansion of coastal drilling – a policy long advocated by most of
the Administration’s Republican opponents – which was bound to make an environmental
catastrophe statistically more likely.
Unlike the politicians, BP accepted responsibility for the
disaster – and for clearing it up – almost immediately. BP’s efforts to date
appear to have been sincere and honourable, albeit less than completely successful.
They have spent a great deal of money trying various methods to deal with the
situation. Certainly there are no serious suggestions coming from their
political critics of alternative methods that would work better.
This is why, for all the hot air about the Federal
government taking control of the clean up, the better informed people in the
government have been happy to leave it to BP. They know they could do nothing
that BP are not doing already. It would simply become their problem, not BP’s,
and they would lose the option of having BP to blame for any subsequent
Moreover, if the Feds did take over, when success finally
comes – as it will, eventually, irrespective of who is “in charge” – they would
get little credit for it, because voters would then ask why they did not take
charge from Day One.
So BP are left holding the baby, and getting criticised for
it by the very people who are partly responsible for that unwanted child but do
not want to get involved.
The lesson here for entrepreneurs is a depressing one. Most
of us are entrepreneurs because we like the idea of taking responsibility. Yet
it seems the most practical thing to do is to avoid it if and when a crisis
occurs. Get the lawyers in. Admit nothing. If government starts to complain,
let them take over, so you can sue them later rather than have them sue you.
This is hardly honourable, but such is the business
environment is which we now live. We wish it were otherwise.