VOICES: Not quite beyond petroleum

By Phil Mattera

texascity.jpgForthe past eight years, the oil giant formerly known as British Petroleumhas tried to convince the world that its initials stand for "BeyondPetroleum." An announcement just issued by the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency may suggest that the real meaning of BP is BrazenPolluter.

The EPA revealedthat BP Products North America will pay nearly $180 million to settlecharges that it has failed to comply with a 2001 consent decree underwhich it was supposed to implement strict controls on benzene andbenzene-tainted waste generated by the company's vast oil refiningcomplex in Texas City, Texas, located south of Houston.  Since the1920s, benzene has been known to cause cancer.

Among BP's self-proclaimed corporate valuesis to be "environmentally responsible with the aspiration of 'no damageto the environment'" and to ensure that "no one is subject tounnecessary risk while working for the group." Somehow, that messagedid not seem to make its way to BP's operation in Texas City, which hasa dismal performance record.

The benzene problem in Texas City was supposed to be addressed as part of the $650 million agreementBP reached in January 2001 with the EPA and the Justice Departmentcovering eight refineries around the country. Yet environmentalofficials in Texas later found that benzene emissions at the plantremained high. BP refused to accept that finding and tried to stonewallthe state, which later imposed a fine of $225,000.

InMarch 2005 a huge explosion (photo) at the refinery killed 15 workersand injured more than 170. The blast blew a hole in a benzene storagetank, contaminating the air so seriously that safety investigatorscould not enter the site for a week after the incident.

BP was later cited for egregious safety violations and paid a record fine of $21.4 million. Subsequently, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former secretary of state James Baker III foundthat BP had failed to spend enough money on safety and failed to takeother steps that could have prevented the disaster in Texas City. Stilllater, the company paid a $50 million fine as part of a plea agreement on related criminal charges.

Inan apparent effort to repair its image, BP has tried to associateitself with positive environmental initiatives. The company was, forinstance, one of the primary sponsorsof the big Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference held in Washington earlierthis month. Yet as long as BP operates dirty facilities such as theTexas City refinery, the company's sunburst logo, its purportedearth-friendly values and its claim of going beyond petroleum will benothing more than blatant greenwashing.

Philip Mattera is director of the Corporate Research Project at Good Jobs First. This article originally appreared in Dirt Diggers Digest.