Jul. 25–Nine years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers and caused the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, BP can’t seem to buy redemption.
That’s true in Louisiana, although not because anyone has been inclined to refuse the money BP has offered or been ordered to pay as atonement for its grievous sins. The $65 billion BP has shelled out has meant huge windfalls for plenty of people, many of them quite undeserving.
It is also true that BP can’t buy redemption at home in Britain. Thousands of miles from the waters contaminated by the spill, its main concern is the taint to its reputation, and moola is the answer there too. The amounts are minuscule by comparison, but large enough for the recipients, major theaters, galleries and museums, to claim the cultural life of BP‘s homeland would be much diminished without them.
BP is thus a civilizing influence on a society that could not function without the energy it produces, or so goes the company line.
The company’s detractors see things differently. They call BP‘s art sponsorship “artwashing” or “greenwashing.” The intent, they say, is to create a respectable veneer for a greedy monster bent on raping and destroying the planet.
Louisiana has traditionally welcomed Big Oil as an economic savior, a major creator of jobs and a contributor to various civic causes. Certainly all the politicians in its pocket were keen to make the argument that its benign influence far outweighed any environmental damage it caused. As for anthropogenic climate change, it was easier for the oil companies to deny their role in it so long as the White House maintained there was no such thing.
The deniers have pretty much lost that argument as extreme weather grows more frequent. New Orleans came close to disaster when, with the river unseasonably high, Barry decided to drop his rain offshore, sparing us the flooding that could have been worse than Katrina. But clearly our luck cannot last forever. Thus our attitude to Big Oil grows increasingly ambivalent, even while British opinion is split over whether BP is an acceptable patron of the arts.
BP is not the only oil company in environmentalists’ bad graces, and Deepwater Horizon is far from its only offense. But the spill is the biggest single reason to hate Big Oil and rates a mention whenever some cultural icon quits one of the institutions BP subsidizes. The most recent departures in protest at BP‘s sponsorship are the Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif from the Board of Trustees at the British Museum. Rylance explained, “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who willfully destroys the lives of others alive or unborn.”
Equating a tank of gas with weapons of war is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch, but then hyperbole is Rylance’s stock in trade.
In her resignation letter, Soueif wrote, “Schools bring children to the British Museum — the same children who are now living in existential dread of climate change. How do they respond to BP‘s logo on the museum’s headline exhibitions?”
BP had been sponsoring high-profile British cultural organizations for many years before Deepwater Horizon, but has stepped up its efforts since. A couple of years ago the company quit supporting the Tate Art Gallery, site of many an environmentalist protest, but has retained what it must regard as prestigious links with the likes of the Royal Opera and the National Portrait Gallery.
The sums involved — a few hundred thousand here, and a few hundred thousand there — mean little to a company that employs 70,000 people around the world and reported profits of $10 billion last year.
Whatever goodwill is generated by arts sponsorship cannot overcome growing unease over what fossil fuels are doing to our natural surroundings. A shareholder revolt has seen BP eager to present itself as a green influence and it has just announced plans to beef up ethanol production in Brazil from sugar cane, which absorbs carbon as it grows.
Look at all the cane fields in Louisiana. Maybe redemption is there.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.
(c)2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
Visit NOLA Media Group, New Orleans at www.nola.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.