A View From the Cheap Seats

October 3, 2007

Beyond Pandering

Filed under: BP,Environment,National,State — trzupek @ 7:37 pm

EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – OCTOBER 3, 2007
By Dr. L. Stanley Trooper
(aka: Rich’s big, even nerdier, bro)

Now that the sludge has had a chance to settle, we’re going to return to the BP fiasco. You’ll recall that over the past couple of months BP has been bushwhacked with a ton of bad publicity, essentially for the sin of running their business in compliance with current environmental regs. If you want to assign blame for this nuttiness, there’s plenty to go around: the Big Green enviro whack-jobs who pressed the issue; a compliant newspaper hack only too happy to push an agenda with stories full of distortions; and a gaggle of self-serving politicos equally eager to take advantage of the worst fears of an ill-informed public.

But don’t feel sorry for BP – they had a hand in the fiasco, partly by encouraging the sort of public view of oil companies that fuels this kind of hysteria.

Most of you are probably aware that “BP” was originally an acronym for “British Petroleum”. Then BP got cute in an advertising campaign sucking up to the enviro-whackos – BP became “Beyond Petroleum”. Not an exercise in good judgment, in my humble opinion – that decision was, well, “Beyond Pandering”.

Unless all your TV viewing is filtered through Tivo, you’re probably familiar with the commercials in question. Typically, there’s some insipid techno-sap background music; a few comments by some faux man-on-the-street weenie, dripping with concern for the environment ; and usually a bit on some wonderful alternative energy initiative BP is pursuing.

Nothing wrong with trying to develop new energy sources -it’s the sub-text to these commercials that’s troubling. “Sub-text”, if you’re unfamiliar, is all the rage in modern literary studies. There’s what the author wrote (the text), and then there’s what the author really meant – the sub-text. Listening to a BP commercial what you hear the oil company saying in the sub-text is “Yeah, we sell gasoline and petroleum products, but we’re really, really ashamed that we do, and trust us, we’re doing everything in our power to do something else”

The problem here is that too many of average Americans expect to enjoy a 21st century lifestyle, with all the amenities that implies, ignorant of the fact that each and every human activity carries with it an ecological footprint. And one of the key factors in determining that ecological footprint is the energy cost of a modern economy.

Now unless you live in a third world country where you’re using animal dung for fuel, when you’re addressing energy, you’re mostly talking fossil fuels like petroleum. Yes, it would be wonderful if we could replace oil with solar, but trust me – until there’s a research breakthrough (and that probably won’t happen soon), solar and other alternatives are just going to be bit players in the energy picture – that’s a practical reality, not a corporate conspiracy.

Just as there are economic costs in using oil, so there are environmental costs – the key thing is to keep both of those kinds of costs down to as reasonable a level as possible.

Now personally, I’m grateful that I can drive down the corner and pick up all the gas I want, at a cost less than that of an equivalent amount of Perrier. And I’d like to defend BP for making it easy for me to do that. But it’s hard to defend an outfit that goes out of its way to project an image of corporate guilt for selling gasoline.

So BP, here’s what I recommend. Whoever’s your ad agency, fire ’em. Tell your new agency to hire as spokesmen some manly men (or at least as good, some womanly women).

Tell them to put together some commercials that educate the public on things like the following: the amount of geological study it takes to locate new sources of oil; the expense and effort it takes to do the exploration that comes next, too much of which is fruitless; the incredible costs and engineering challenges involved in pulling crude from oil fields deep below the seabed or just off an arctic iceshelf; the additional costs of transporting, refining and distributing the finished products; and the added impediments of an Aegean stable of regulations, coupled with prohibitions on drilling even in the most desolate of locations.

Include in the background of the commercial a replica of the counters on a gasoline pump, with the numbers graduated in tens of millions of dollars instead of simple dollars and cents. Every so often intersperse an inane comment by some clown like Rahm Emmanuel, Mark Kirk, Dick Durbin or Michael Hawthorne – have the numbers spin twice as fast when that happens.

Finally, point out that the amount of profit an oil company makes on each dollar of gas sold is right in line (percentage-wise) with what most industries make – and that government as an aggregate (federal, state, county and municipal) commonly get more per dollar in taxes than the oil companies get as profit. And of course those governments do next to nothing to make that gasoline available to the consumer – what they mostly do is make it harder to get (via regulation) and more expensive (through taxation).

Here’s the sub-text you should be aiming for: “Yeah, we make gasoline. It’s absolutely essential, and we’re proud that we do such a great job producing it. You think you can do the same cheaper and cleaner – well, you go right ahead and try.”

You see, BP, the bottom line is this: you tried to mollify a bunch of Big Green critics with an expensive advertising campaign that ultimately just served to entrench public expectations of readily available energy at negligible economic and environmental cost.

In the end, you spent millions of dollars on an eco-friendly corporate image, and all you got was a lousy tee-shirt. You know, the one with the big green bulls-eye on the back.

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1 Comment »

  1. “Tell them to put together some commercials that educate the public on things like the following: the amount of geological study it takes to locate new sources of oil; the expense and effort it takes to do the exploration that comes next, too much of which is fruitless; the incredible costs and engineering challenges involved in pulling crude from oil fields deep below the seabed or just off an arctic iceshelf; the additional costs of transporting, refining and distributing the finished products; and the added impediments of an Aegean stable of regulations, coupled with prohibitions on drilling even in the most desolate of locations.”

    Also, tell them how expensive it is to kill your own employees, get caught manipulating markets, and generally wreaking havoc on the environment –

    “The Justice Department indicted four former BP PLC traders today, as part of a sweeping resolution to a series of criminal and civil investigations plaguing the British energy giant. The indictments, issued in federal district court in Chicago against former members of BP’s propane-trading desk, come as the Justice Department and federal market and environmental regulators also are expected to announce today that BP has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle criminal and civil probes into a fatal refinery explosion and alleged market manipulation.

    As of yesterday, BP and federal officials also were discussing settling an additional criminal probe into alleged safety and environmental violations connected to an oil-pipeline spill in Alaska. It was unclear if those talks would be resolved before a news conference planned by the Justice Department and the other agencies today in Washington.

    A BP spokesman and a Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

    BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward is making moves to clean up the oil giant’s operational and regulatory troubles. As part of those efforts, the company is expected to plead guilty to criminal environmental charges and pay a $50 million fine related to the explosion two years ago at a Texas refinery, people familiar with the matter have said.

    In addition, BP is expected to pay $303 million to settle civil charges and avoid criminal prosecution for allegedly manipulating and cornering the U.S. propane market in 2004, said people familiar with that matter. As part of that $303 million settlement, a federal judge in Chicago today confirmed an agreement with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under which the U.K. energy giant will pay a $125 million fine for the alleged manipulation of propane prices.”

    Comment by joe blow — October 25, 2007 @ 11:40 am | Reply


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