Frontline: The Spill – A Q&A with Martin Smith

October 25th, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon offshore rig

In Frontline‘s The Spill, correspondent Martin Smith joins the investigative non-profit ProPublica to explore BP’s path to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf.  Far from having a pristine record even before the disaster, The Spill examines BP’s past and questions the extent to which the company’s corporate culture will be forced to change in the wake of the spill.

Here, Mr. Smith discusses his findings and reveals some little-known facts about BP.  Mr. Smith answered out questions via email.

Frontline: The Spill airs Tuesday, October 26 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: Was there anything you were surprised to learn about BP during the process of making “The Spill”?

Martin Smith: Despite its image, the yellow and green sunflower and its beyond petroleum green campaign, BP has a history of troubles beyond that of its competitors for spills and safety problems. Also, the rapid growth of the company. We were not aware that just 20 years ago the company was running in the middle of the oil pack if that. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, former CEO Lord John Browne vaulted the company into a world player fast on the heels of Exxon.

IT: Even before the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf, BP had a reputation for its irresponsible environmental practices – can you give us some background on what made them so controversial?

MS: This was not the public’s perception. But, in Alaska, for instance, BP was responsible for the largest spill ever on the North Slope and across the state has twice the spill rate of its major competitor there, Conoco Phillips. Among observers, the cause is the company’s hyper-focus on growth under Browne’s management whereby focus on operations was overlooked. Tony Hayward’s own analysis is that the company “forgot it was an operating company.” When maintenance of operating facilities suffered, accidents ensued.

IT: Do you feel that the government’s reaction has been forceful enough – both towards BP and the regulators who did not take action towards BP earlier?

MS: There are many who believe that the Gulf spill could have been prevented if BP had been watched more closely. Several government agencies have ongoing investigation into BP’s operations but these seem not to play a role in the permitting process.

IT: Is enough being done to ensure that BP acts more responsibly in the future, both within the company and externally?

MS: We shall see. The new CEO Bob Dudley has a strong reputation and he has vowed to finally get BP’s safety culture fixed. It is of course in the best interests of the company to do so, as it now faces the biggest liabilities in corporate history. Government too is considering means of how to pay closer attention. In the final analysis, it is up to companies to self regulate since the capacity of government to oversee their operations is limited.

Preview The Spill here:

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