How to trust BP again

March 18, 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency is allowing BP to once again bid on new leases in the Gulf of Mexico — which could happen as early as Wednesday.

As a condition of lifting its ban, the E.P.A. last week issued 53 pages of requirements for the company, which now must create a beefed-up code of conduct for employees; establish a zero tolerance policy for retaliation against whistleblowers; train senior leaders in ethics, and dole out bonuses related to issues like safety and environmental sustainability.

But BP had much of that in place before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. During my time as a manager of policy development at BP (which ended in 2008), I had to certify every year that I complied with the company’s code of conduct. I used the company hotline when I thought a manager was behaving inappropriately, and was impressed by how my complaint was handled.

Then came Deepwater Horizon. I was as appalled and angry as everyone else in the aftermath of the explosion, as BP repeatedly failed to cap the gushing well and multiple investigations portrayed BP as a company that took too many risks and cut corners in pursuit of profits.

I had to reconcile the BP I thought I knew well with the one that emerged after the disaster. I spoke with peers in other industries — like apparel and technology — that push for safer and more sustainable practices.

I wanted to learn what it really means to be a responsible company, and what it would take for me — and by extension the E.P.A. and the American people — to trust BP again.

Here are three of the themes that emerged from my conversations about good corporate behavior, which we should demand from BP as it bids on new leases in the Gulf:

Senior executives need to bear witness. Upper management is often removed from how their decisions impact people and communities at the far reaches of their supply chain. A director of Disney’s International Labor Standards Program told me that once her chief financial officer visited factories in Asia that make Disney-branded products, her team received more support for their work improving labor conditions there.

BP should have monthly meetings with communities affected by the spill — not just with compliance auditors in suits. I want to know that the ubiquitous photo of the oil-covered seagull — along with positive scenes of thriving Gulf communities to motivate staff — is hanging on every BP wall.

Study what works, as well as what doesn’t. In Vietnam, the NGO Save the Children made headway against the longstanding problem of malnourished children by studying the few families that had healthy kids and emulating their practices, rather than trying to impose solutions from the outside.

During my time with BP, I regularly reached out to experts and NGOs for their expertise on human rights and sustainable development, and commissioned studies on potential social and environmental impacts to help manage those risks. That was excellent practice, but did not occur in all of the other 99 countries where BP did business. BP should be required to regularly review best practices internally, in its industry, and in other industries with similar challenges.

Seat the right people at the grown-up table. It’s all well and good to employ people with words like “ethics” and “sustainability” in their titles, especially in the industries that present the biggest risks to people and the planet. But are those people involved when big decisions are made? At Newmont Mining, the executive vice president of sustainability and external relations sits on the company’s investment council, the committee that determines which projects get recommended to the board for investment. If it doesn’t already, BP should give such executives real power, allowing them to decide which projects get funded.

I’m cautiously optimistic that BP can get it right. The companies that have the best programs to protect people and the environment are often the ones that have had the biggest problems.

Take Yahoo, for starters. Before it launches a new product in a new market, Yahoo assesses risks to user privacy and free expression. But it only started doing so after the Chinese government forced it to turn over data used to identify journalist Shi Tao — who was then imprisoned for disclosing state secrets.

Apple started working with the Fair Labor Association to ensure people are treated and paid properly in its Foxconn supplier factories — after a New York Times exposé revealed harsh working conditions in those plants.

Scores of apparel companies have committed to upgrade factories in Bangladesh — after the Rana Plaza building collapsed in 2013, killing over 1,100 garment workers.

Similar incidents may still happen in the future, due to the countries where these companies operate and the risks of their industries.

But that’s no excuse for not doing everything possible to prevent another disaster. As the Presidential Oil Spill Commission’s final report noted, “Even inherently risky businesses can be made safer, given the right motivations and systems-safety management practices.”

Indeed. We have to look beyond a glossy code of conduct and off-the-shelf training programs to what BP executives are seeing and studying, and who’s in the room making decisions, as the company re-enters the Gulf.

PHOTOS: Water is sprayed onto burning natural gas at the source of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana June 19, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano 

A boat passes through heavily oiled marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana May 20, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano

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Upper level executive’s exposure to lower level reality is as good, for those issues, as the executive. Madoff might not get all warm and fuzzy. Being faced with large inflexible, the buck stops here, executive financial penalties, might bring these leaders to inspiring moment’s clarity.

If a group of company’s created a fund, somehow kept at arm’s length, to provide real self-examining independent investigative reporting, it could bring (this is where I get a little choked up) the dawn off a brave new world…probably not. The funds roster of management and reporters would need to be always changing to reduce the detrimental effects of greed, envy, pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, and wrath. You can choose the order in accordance with your own detriments.

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