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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Learning From ‘Public Relations Disasters’

A year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill a national magazine indicated that one of the positive lessons learned from Exxon’s experience was that all oil companies had learned how to avoid a “public relations disaster.”

As I reviewed the BP Oil Co.’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill during 2010, I thought about the magazine’s comment and wondered where the BP executives were during the Exxon experience. They obviously didn’t learn how to avoid a “public relations disaster.”

Let me review BP’s incident. The Deepwater Horizon was a giant oil drilling rig, built in 2001 and moored about 48 miles off the Louisiana coast. It could hold a crew of 130 people. The rig involved several companies – Transocean Ltd., who owned the rig; Halliburton, the oil services contractor who capped the well; and BP Oil, who leased the rig from Transocean and owned the oil.

On April 20, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and sent million gallons of oil into the water.

Did BP Oil have a contingency plan for a spill? We may remember that Exxon had a contingency plan in Alaska in the event of an oil spill. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which was owned by the seven oil companies working out of Alaska, drew up the contingency plan. In it, Alyeska stated it could be at the site of a spill in the Sound within five hours. But the company wasn’t able to get its containment gear to the scene until 14 hours after the spill. Why? Officials from Alyeska had initially said the equipment was off the barge, because it was damaged and waiting welding of a cracked side. Then Theo Polasek, vice president of operations for Alyeska, said it was because the equipment had not been put back after two earlier spills in January, that they were still being cleaned and repaired.

Polasek insisted assumptions made in the contingency plan, including oil recovery projections and response times, applied only to the scenario set out in their plan – and not any spill in the Sound.

However, a diagram in the back of the 1987 contingency plan did set out general response times for spills in all parts of the Sound. In that diagram, Alyeska projected it could be at the Bligh Reef area within four hours.

Senator Richard Durbin’s response to Polasek was, “Well sir, let me tell you something. You made a promise to a lot of people with this document,” Durbin said ,waving the red-and-white covered contingency plan at Polasek.

“And without that promise I don’t think you’d have been in business. And quite honestly, I believe you abused the basic trust which was given to the company. You can make all the excuses you want, but the fact is a lot of damage has been done when a lot of people think it could have been avoided.”

Durbin suggested the contingency plan was a sham. He said Alyeska violated the public’s trust by its ineffectual response to the spill. The plan was Alyeska’s assurance “to the nation at large” that the oil companies were prepared to handle a disaster. But do you think that had you put in this document ... what actually happened when the Exxon Valdez ran into Bligh Reef, that any agency of government, state or federal, would have given you permission to pump oil through the pipeline?”

In British Petroleum’s 52-page “An Exploration Plan and Environmental Impact Analysis” for the well, BP suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish, and mammals.

BP’s “Regional Spill Plan” for the Gulf was approved by the U.S. government last year. But an analysis by the Associated Press has found that in the 582-page plan, it made false assumptions about the extent, direction, and consequences of any possible spill from deepwater drilling off the coast of Louisiana.

Let me go back to Sen. Durbin’s question to Alyeska, “Do you think that had you put in this document ... what actually happened when the Exxon Valdez ran into Bligh Reef, that any agency of government, state, or federal, would have given you permission to pump oil through the pipeline?”

Apparently federal agencies don’t ask probing questions like that. According to an article in the April 25, 2010, Sunday Times, the federal agency with oversight of offshore drilling, the Interior Department’s Minerals and Management Service, did not require BP to file a “scenario for potential blowout.” Then according to the exploration plan obtained by Huffington Post, an MMS official certified that BP “has the capacity to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge.”

If the MMS official certified that BP had the capacity, on what was this opinion based? The official must have based his/her decision on the “BP Exploration plan and Environmental Impact Analysis” that said repeatedly – that it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities. If a spill did occur, that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected on beaches, wildlife refuges, or wilderness areas.” If that’s the case, then our government agencies are to blame as well.

In the next issue I would like to continue the thought first mentioned in this column, that all oil companies have learned how to avoid a public relations disaster by pointing out how badly BP handled the “crisis communications” part of their public relations disaster.

Ed Devlin, CBCP, has provided business recovery planning consulting services since 1973 when he co-founded Devlin Associates. Since then, Devlin has assisted more than 300 companies in the writing of their business recovery plans and has made more than 800 seminars and presentations worldwide.