Pity poor Tony Hayward, Chief Executive Officer of beleaguered British Petroleum. All this messiness in the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion that cost eleven people their lives has clearly made him dyspeptic. In the video clip, he looks harried, his curly locks mussed and his bespoke shirt noticeably less crisp. The three million British pounds (that’s about 4.6 million American dollars) that he made last year is not enough to comfort him in this difficult time of media vilification. I can see why he looked so bothered when he said to reporters, “I’d like my life back.”
But he isn’t the only one.
Louisiana produces half the nation’s shrimp and forty percent of its oysters. Fishing is not only a living for many in southern Louisiana, it’s a way of life; they’re doing what their fathers and grandfathers did before them and raising their sons to do the same. There are festivals to celebrate seafood, museums dedicated to the fishing tradition, and Mardi Gras parades on the water with decorated shrimp boats; that’s how central fishing is to these coastal communities. Since April 20, these fishermen have had to go farther afield and move from established fishing waters or in some cases, even leave their boats docked and hope for a change in the current to take oil away from closed oyster beds. I’m sure that they too would like their lives back, even if those lives are humbler than that of a BP executive.
Oil industry workers who don’t work for BP would also like their lives back. The day before the explosion, they anticipated an increase in offshore drilling and increased demand for their expertise. Now they face a moratorium on offshore drilling for at least six months and possibly longer. Any of them who were between jobs at the time of the explosion may have a very long wait before they find work. BP’s choice to forgo testing of the cement casing of the Deepwater Horizon well jeopardized far more than the safety of the workers on that rig; even companies whose safety records are sterling will be painted with the same oil-soaked brush thanks to BP’s negligence, and that’s bad news from the bottom of the industry on up.
The 2010 hurricane season has just begun. Historically, Louisiana’s wetlands acted as a gigantic sponge that absorbed dangerously high storm surges and protected low-lying New Orleans from the worst flooding. As Katrina proved in 2005, the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands left the city exposed to hurricanes in a way it had never been before; the only protection it had was the man-made system of levees and storm walls, many of which failed in a Category 3 hurricane despite being originally designed for stronger storms. The health of our wetlands was already precarious (we lose about a football field’s worth of Louisiana every forty minutes or so) and the addition of countless gallons of oil could have dire consequences not just on delicate ecosystems, but on a great American city that has already been through disaster all too recently.
And of course, no one should forget the eleven men whose lives were lost on the Deepwater Horizon. How must their families have felt upon hearing Hayward’s wistful desire to have his life back?
I’m not unrealistic enough to believe that Tony Hayward is personally and wholly responsible for what happened. I doubt he had anything to do with BP’s decision to skip essential testing of the cement casing, nor do I think he’s responsible for delays in payments to compensate fishermen put out of work by the company’s negligence. He probably didn’t sign off on busing in an extra 400 men to clean Grand Isle’s beaches the week before President Obama’s visit there–workers that have since been nowhere in sight. I certainly don’t believe that his wealth insulates him from feeling genuine anguish over this nightmare or regret for the loss of eleven men’s lives.
But I do wonder if he has any real idea of just how deeply the oil spill affects my state and its neighboring Gulf Coast states. He doesn’t live off the land or count on it for protection. He doesn’t do what his father and his father’s father did before him, knowing no other trade and being tied to it by more than merely financial bonds. He doesn’t have to smell the oil when the wind blows the wrong way (although maybe it would be good if he did, like a puppy having its nose rubbed in its mistake on the carpet).
Mr. Hayward is not directly responsible for any of the mess. He’s simply the most public face for people to vilify after a chain of poor BP decisions that culminated in catastrophe. His offhand “I’d like my life back” was obviously the ill-thought-out comment of a harried man. But that comment made it clear just how out of touch he is. It’s as if he’d stubbed a toe while fleeing a burning building and cried about it in front of the families whose homes and lives and loved ones were in that building. He’s apologized for the thoughtless comment, but I don’t know if he understands fully why it was so thoughtless–or that he ever will.
I would feel sympathy for your disrupted life, Tony Hayward, if I didn’t see so much worse happening to friends here at home in Louisiana.