In Defense of British Petroluem

Is it any wonder that the oil conglomerate British Petroleum is not winning any popularity contests lately?  After all, this is the moment that our chattering classes have been eagerly anticipating for decades  – the whale-like oil companies finally surfacing and exposing a vulnerable flank to a host of upraised harpoons.  So successful has the media mauling and demonization of the corporate giant been, that you would think the company is the very re-incarnation of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, determined to blacken our seas and stain our sands with its slimy, viscous poison.

So anyone trying to build a case for the London-based multinational during its agonizing and protracted auto de fé, does not have an enviable task.  After all, who really wants to speak a good word about a company that has facilitated the worst oil spill of the past 40 years –  an episode that may be on its way to becoming the most calamitous man made environmental disaster in history?

Well, frankly, I do.

Because British Petroleum, whether appreciated today or not, has been one of the singularly great success stories of the world’s entrepreneurial classes, building an almost unparalleled  record of success as a spearhead of Western civilization.  It has brought wealth and prosperity, not simply to the West, but to those countries where it has located its operations and created models for how corporations can overcome institutional obstacles.  It has shown how an indomitable spirit , accompanied by bold vision can achieve results that those who complain endlessly about corporate rapaciousness, only dream about.

From its founding in 1901 by William Knox D’Arcy, and then through the skilful leadership of Charles Greenway and his successor John Cadmon, the Anglo- Persian Oil Company, (renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil in 1935 and then again British Petroleum in 1953) has undertaken exploration of a vital world energy source in countries largely hostile to either exploration or development.

We shouldn’t forget that the discovery of oil in Persia in the early years of the 20th Century did not occur after some Oriental counterpart of Jed Clampett, shooting buck skin on a desert sand dune, inexplicably struck it rich.  It took nearly a decade of painstaking and often fruitless exploration  before oil was discovered – and with those efforts  initially producing only pitiful returns.   That it eventually succeeded so well, is testament not just to the vision and acumen of corporate leaders, but the drive of the West to expand. For with that expansion was carried a value system that came to dominate the world and  spread the bounty and promise of Western civilization.

Of course even the mere mention of the name of “Anglo Persian Oil” can arouse the most acerbic vitriol from the left, who regard the fact that Europeans once sought to develop and exploit the Persian oil fields, as a badge of colonial shame.  Yet, whatever you want to say about the men who greedily eyed profits in the Persian Gulf, there can be no question that their undertakings had a transformative impact on the world, raising living standards wherever they went and making possible important advances in health, transportation and communications.

Oil’s less benevolent impact on our world  –  the mark of environmental degradation- might stand as its deepest indictment.  But the industry, it should be remembered, did not produce the demand itself; it simply responded to it.  As Western technology developed and prosperity accelerated, oil, replacing coal, became a vital piece in achieving progress in almost all fields of human endeavor.  That our society has now identified oil as a major pollutant and as a threat to our long term survival, should not be thrown in the faces of companies such as BP.  They are not responsible for inventing our luxuries.  They only help to make them move.

Does any of this excuse BP from its responsibilities to facilitate the containment and clean up of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?.  Of course not.  But the company does not deserve to stand accused as a scourge of humanity, to be hounded out of business for the obscene presumption of seeking to take advantage of our desperate need for a reliable source of energy.

Perhaps President Obama, in his apparently insatiable need to lacerate and lecture BP, should then consider something pertinent about his own past:  Neither Kenya , Indonesia nor Hawaii, all places that figure prominently in his curriculum vitae, would have produced societies capable of giving either him or his father the education and opportunities they had, without the  participation and even leadership of companies such as BP.

Lets hope that the endless gushing in the Gulf ends soon.  But lets also hope that the same endless anti-corporate gushing in Washington, offering a different, but no less contaminating level of pollution, ends even sooner.


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