Like any savvy corporate executive, BP Canada president Anne Drinkwater didn’t get to where she is today by saying the wrong thing. At least, not in front of the world media, and certainly not in front of our elected, er, representatives, and especially when the ‘topic’ is government regulation of the oil and gas industry.
That’s precisely why when the middle-aged (look,we scoured our research and the web and came up ’goose eggs’ on her age) Briton and boss of BP PLC’s Canadian branch appeared earlier this month before a Canadian parliamentary committee to answer questions on regulation of the oil drilling industry, she made a point of saying nothing or next to it.
As one of the more timely “orders of the day” for the May 13th sittings of the House of Commons standing committee on natural resources, “status of the emergency response to offshore oil and gas drilling” was not exactly a natural or homegrown ‘topic’ (tip of the beer-soaked toque to Bob and Doug Mckenzie of Great White North fame) for a group of Canadian MPs.
Still, it beat the heck out of the committee’s previous menu–the “status of the NRU Reactor and the Supply of Medical Isotopes”–which, though arguably of concern to those undergoing radiation treatment around the planet–could not compete with a live BP corporate exec being questioned about the Gulf of Mexico spill.
Although Drinkwater was called to testify along with Gaétan Caron, chair of the National Energy Board (the federal regulator for offshore oil and gas drilling and production in Canada), her zero-degrees-of-separation from BP’s global CEO Tony Hayward, the guy for whom she once worked as an “EA”, made her the closest thing to a celebrity on Parliament Hill.
But the media-seasoned Drinkwater, accustomed as she is to handling political hot-potatoes from her former positions heading BP’s operations in politically murderous Indonesia and green-vigilant Norway, was tight-lipped and then some during the proceedings.
With all the panache of an anesthetized chartered accountant, Drinkwater stuck to a script of “prepared remarks” which were clearly emailed from someone’s laptop at BP’s embattled crisis-management centre in Houston, Texas.
The ad copy text she proceeded to read with the verve of a sixth-grader related to “the April 20 incident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and on the resources and the “expertise” that BP is bringing to bear in the spill response effort.”
“Just over three weeks ago,” Drinkwater recited in a monotone, “11 people were lost in an explosion and fire aboard the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and 17 others were injured.”
Extending her own “deepest sympathy and condolences…to the families, friends, and colleagues who have suffered such a terrible loss, and to those in communities along the gulf coast whose lives and livelihoods are being impacted,” she wasted no time and batted no eye in coolly switching gears from personal sentiment to corporate self-justification.
From that point on, the BP Canada chief’s main order of business was to preach the official party line authored in absentia by BP PLC CEO Hayward:
The root cause of this tragic incident is unknown at this time, and figuring out what happened and why it happened is a complex process. We are cooperating with the joint investigation by the departments of Homeland Security and the Interior and investigations by the United States Congress.In addition, BP has commissioned an internal investigation, whose results we plan to share so that we can all learn from these terrible events. As a responsible party under the Oil Pollution Act, we will carry out our responsibilities to mitigate the environmental and economic impacts of this incident.
Given Drinkwater is the Canadian prez of the BP deepwater fleet, it isn’t a shocker that she would be called upon to parrot the head office denials of actual responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout.
Nor that surprising that she would repeat the “it was an accident” excuse (now a mantra recited every morning in BP’s Houston offices) nearly four weeks after the Gulf disaster had been shown beyond doubt to be the product of BP and its subcontractors’ collective greed, arrogance and incompetence in the operation of the doomed Transocean platform.
Like her putatively brilliant but hapless superior, Drinkwater’s “prepared remarks” were laced with martial themes and metaphors presumably aimed at reassuring the three hundred parliamentary assistants, CPAC technicians and their doting grandmothers who were watching on cable that BP was going to clobber that pesky oil spill with the precision of a U.S. napalm special forces strike on communist bases in Cambodia and Laos insurgent positions in Iraq.
Drinkwater intoned with no trace of emotion how the BP disaster response in the Gulf “is being managed within a unified command that was established within hours of the accident,” then quickly adding a mandatory “local” reference– “I know that the Government of British Columbia has also offered emergency response technicians to the United States Coast Guard”
“Proven Industry Techniques”
From there on, Drinkwater’s textual recitation became painful to the brain of anyone who had bothered to notice anything remotely associated with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the preceding three and a half weeks.
“BP,” she claimed, again with no limbic activity visible to the Commons television camera,”responded quickly and aggressively to the spill, and we continue to attack this very aggressively on three fronts: in the sub sea, to stop the flow of oil and secure the well; on the surface; and on the shoreline. Our number one priority is to shut off the flow.”
Drinkwater soldiered on with characteristic British resolve, rhyming off BP’s “multiple options in parallel,” including last (now this) week’s sure-fire solution to stanch the gulf leak, the so-called “top kill” manoeuver.
This operation, Drinkwater assured her captive audience, was “aimed at stopping the flow of oil from the well…essentially…by injecting multi-sized particles to plug the blowout preventer, or BOP, followed by using heavyweight drilling mud and ultimately cement to permanently seal off the well.”
It was when Drinkwater called the “top kill” remedy a “proven industry technique [that] has been used worldwide, but never in 5,000 feet of water,” that the gargoyles affixed to the Peace Tower began to grimace in unison.
Coast guard approved biological dispersants”
To cap off (editorial license, don’t go there) those dubious assertions, Drinkwater alluded to BP’s strategy of “attacking the area with coast guard approved biodegradable dispersants, which are being applied from planes and boats” as well as “a technique to apply dispersant at the leak point on the seabed” which she claimed, “the EPA is carefully analyzing options for the possible future use of this technique.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Drinkwater’s remarks about BP’s use of dispersants now seem slanted if not downright misleading. Debate is now raging on the oil-stained Gulf coast whether the dispersant ”cure” is more lethal than the oil itself in its long-term impact on the undersea coral in the region.
And on May 24th (Victoria Day, anyone?) the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lisa Jackson made it plain as day to the media that her agency’s ’endorsement’ of BP’s sub sea dispersants in the Gulf was not quite on par with say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s high regard for Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dishwashing liquid.
In a carefully worded press statement yesterday, the EPA chief allowed that while “dispersants continue to be the best of two very difficult choices…their use inevitably means that we are making environmental trade-offs.”
She then added, if it were even necessary, that “in all of this, it is critical to remember that the Number One enemy is the oil.”
NEB announces review of Arctic drilling regs
Two days before the May 13th, 2010 parliamentary hearings, the National Energy Board issued a press release confirming it was “starting a review of Arctic safety and environmental offshore drilling requirements in light of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The NEP’s chair, Drinkwater’s fellow witness Gaétan Caron said in the May 11th communique:”We need to learn from what happened in the Gulf,” NEB Chair said.
He added: “The information taken from this unfortunate situation will enhance our safety and environmental oversight…With this decision, the Board cancelled its process that was looking into same season relief well capability in the Arctic.”
Suddenly the Gulf oil spill had the NEB and others north of the 49th parallel effusing renewed concern for the Arctic environment and in particular, raising questions about why BP Canada had previously sought to eliminate NEB regs requiring oil companies to drill “relief wells” during the same season that they sunk their initial exploratory wells.
BP Canada has been accused along with other big oil exploration companies of trying to throw the relief well requirement over the side, arguing that the drilling season in the Beaufort is too short to make it economical.
Meanwhile back in the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s crisis management brain trust is continuing to make promises that it will have some relief wells drilled and ready to take the pressure off the leaking well within a month or so if they’re lucky.
“Inappropriate” for BP to say if Canadian regs more stringent
Responding to the issues raised before the committee about the implications of the Gulf disaster for Canadian arctic oil and gas exploration, especially in the Beaufort Sea, Drinkwater was non-responsive, some might even say evasive given her demonstrated experience in addressing thorny issues.
But the proceedings got testier when another committee witness, Lawrence Amos, raised some points.
The treasurer of the Inuvialuit game council told committee members that his community was unsure it could trust assurances given by Imperial Oil that “a blowout is very unlikely to happen” in its Beaufort Sea drilling operations and specific promises from Imperial that “if a kick was experienced, they would have a blowout preventer in place that would prevent a blowout…similar to the ones used in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Still, the Inuvialuit rep could hardly be accused of being confrontational for then pointing out that “we have not heard from BP specifically on what their plans are for their similar drilling.”
“With the recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico,” Amos suggested politely, “the communities will likely have less faith to take industry at its word.”
It was when Yukon liberal MP Larry Bagnell followed up on the issue, that Drinkwater bristled.
Bagnell asked the BP Canada boss to “briefly compare the Canadian and the American systems, both of which you’re applying to for wells” and to indicate whether they involved “roughly the same type of safety, or is one more stringent than the other on what you would have to do to drill a well?”
Drinkwater’s answer was abrupt and unhelpful: “I haven’t carried out a detailed comparative evaluation of the two regulatory regimes, so it would be inappropriate for me to respond to that question.”
“Not an expert in oil spill techniques in an Arctic environment”
When Bagnell later asked Drinkwater whether BP would “agree with the scientists who say there’s no way, technically, to clean oil up under ice at the moment, or a major spill under ice cover?”, Drinkwater blew the MP off without missing a beat.
“I’m not an expert in oil spill techniques in an Arctic environment, so I would have to defer to other experts on that,” Drinkwater replied.
Despite these minor skirmishes, Drinkwater’s appearance and performance on the hill on May 13th was on the whole fairly bland.
If there is a corporate media strategy at play it appears to be to keep a low profile and not call too much attention to BP’s operations in Canada, once described as “the quiet corner of the BP empire.”
But with BP’s 2007 joint venture with Husky Energy Inc. about to bring the company into the Alberta oil sands development in a big way, and with the Alaska gas pipeline always on standby, quiet is exactly what Anne Drinkwater pines for in her Canadian bailiwick.
BP Canada annointed as a “strategic division”
And while Drinkwater may not technically be an “expert in oil spill techniques” (in a company running a deficit in that department she does have a background in applied mathematics), she’s been around the globe enough times to appreciate that when oil prices make it profitable to drill in the North, BP will be front and centre to grab its fraction of that action.
Just as she also knows that the Alberta tar sands may eventually prove profitable in the long haul despite temporary blips on the radar like the April 2010 protest by a group of ethically-motivated BP shareholders who failed in their bid to have BP PLC pull out completely from the tar sands.
In fact, when she was named to head BP Canada in 2007, the Canadian operation had been elevated and earmarked by Hayward’s board to be one of the company’s “strategic divisions.”
And quiet is precisely how BP Canada wants to keep things where its present and future involvement in the Beaufort Sea and the Alberta tar sands is concerned.
That’s simply because, with the possible exception of Stephen Harper, himself a transplanted Calgarian, no one knows better than Anne Drinkwater that to get at the crude oil deposits trapped under 87,000 square kilometres of prime woodlands in northern Alberta, BP and its joint venturers will require the production of quadruple the amount of carbon dioxide than conventional oil drilling.
That will mean that as a result of BP Canada’s anticipated tar sands operations into 2012, a projected volume of 100 million tonnes of CO2 will be spewed into the atmosphere, well above the 1997 Kyoto treaty’s 2012 emission targets.
When Hayward took over the helm in 2007 from outgoing and disgraced CEO Lord Browne, his immediate plans for Alberta were unequivocal: “BP’s move into oil sands is an opportunity to build a strategic, material position and the huge potential of Sunrise is the ideal entry point for BP into Canadian oil sands.”
“Too Many People Trying to Save the World”
Even if BP Canada is correct in its claims that it will placate critics by using green-friendly techniques to liquefy oil and extract oil sands, tar sands critics like Greenpeace still argue it will still require exorbitant amounts of natural gas to produce one barrel of processed oil.
But unfazed by what Hayward in 2007 famously disparaged at Stanford University as “too many people trying to save the world”, BP’s response to the eco-critics is that “these are resources that would have been developed anyway.”
Skepticism about the BP’s capacity and corporate will to safeguard the environmental theatre of their oil operations, be it in the tar sands of Alberta or in any of the other environs where Drinkwater and her cohorts have been deployed has only been fueled (sorry) more by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
According to David Schindler, an ecology professor and respected scientist in Alberta: “Right now the big pressure is to get that money out of the ground, not to reclaim the landscape. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could see these pits from a satellite 1,000 years from now.”
Add those to the satellite imagery of the Gulf spill that is already circulating like, er, the Gulf spill, and you get the big picture that BP and its Canadian president are keen for you not to get. Pics that you can show your children’s children along with the shots of the ducks caught in the mucky tailing ponds.