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Does Obama become a nationalist when it comes to oil disasters?

Rescuers approach the Kulluk vessel
AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Sara Francis
A rescue helicopter approaches the Kulluk rig, owned by Noble and leased by Shell, that ran aground in the Arctic.
By Steve LeVine
AlaskaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

During the fallout of BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, some UK media and company executives suggested that Americans were singling out the firm for its foreign—specifically British—roots. Indeed, fully one-third of Britons in a poll at the time said that Obama, who once referred to the company as “British Petroleum”, had gone “anti-British.” If an American company had the same accident, it would not be so rudely handled, these Britons suggested.

Today, Shell is the company in the American hot seat, under investigation in the Dec. 31 grounding of a drilling vessel in the Alaskan Arctic, and a former senior BP executive is warning the Anglo-Dutch company of the ethnic calumny that is coming.

Nick Butler, who was BP’s vice president for strategy in the 2000s, now runs an energy think tank at King’s College London and writes a blog at the Financial Times. In his latest post, Butler writes, “When BP had its far more serious problems in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama rechristened the company ‘British Petroleum.’ Shell should be prepared for him to start calling it ‘Royal Dutch.’”

This siege psyche is typical of both members and critics of the oil industry, in which one seeks deep meaning in simple circumstances (thus violating Rule 3—the Conspiracy rule—in Quartz’s 14 rules of geopolitics) because surely someone is out to get you. This style of thinking, for example, seems to be a subtext for both critics of shale gas drilling, and the industry’s defensive posture against them. It is also embedded in the discourse about climate change.

I emailed Butler and asked whether there couldn’t be an innocent explanation for what he observed. After all, within the memory of many adults, BP was in fact “British Petroleum”—the company formally became BP only in 2001, after 45 years with the spelled-out version. Butler replied that Shell’s problem “is not yet big enough for Obama to get involved, but he certainly played up BP’s British status though in fact it is more American in terms of ownership and staff and capital employed than Shell.”

In his post, Butler goes on to advise Shell to also prepare for mortification and a shakedown. Even though it is not the owner nor operator of the vessel that went aground—that would be a contractor called Noble—Shell would be blamed. “Neither the media nor would-be claimants focus on contractors who have minimal capital and no name to protect when it is easier to embarrass and extract cash from a company that cares about its global brand,” Butler wrote.

Again, I wonder whether it is simply that the media and regulators focus on the big company that hired the contractors. “I just note that all the coverage calls it a Shell not a Noble rig,” Butler said. It’s a tough life being one of the most powerful economic entities on the planet.

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