The White House-appointed Oil Spill Commission wasted no time yesterday in rejecting Consumer Watchdog’s call for dismissal, or at least investigation, of its chief counsel, despite his glaring conflicts of interest. I say glaring because Fred Bartlit, the panel’s top lawyer, has represented oil and chemical companies in court; the firm he founded has represented Halliburton, and its practice is almost entirely corporate civil and criminal work. (11/24 update: In addition, Bartlit worked for 33 years with the firm Kirkland and Ellis, which is representing BP on spill issues. Hat tip to “Bartlit Facts,” who commented on our previously posted news release.)
Perhaps all that history could be put aside, except that when representing the commission’s early findings last week, Bartlit sounded exactly like a corporate criminal defense lawyer. He cannily narrowed what the commission was looking at to individual decisions, managing to ignore, even exonerate, established corporate cultures of cost-cutting over safety at BP and Halliburton.
Here’s what Bartlit said:
We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs, and opted to give up safety for costs.
In a very legalistic sense, all of that could be true. But as OilWatchdog’s letter to the commission noted, cost-cutting and disdain for safety are in the DNA of these companies:
“Both BP and Halliburton have well-documented corporate cultures that put profits before safety. The Baker Panel, a commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker, investigated BP’s Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 people and injured 170 others and determined that indeed BP put profits before safety, finding that BP failed to provide “effective” leadership to make the safety of its industrial equipment “a core value” at its five U.S. refineries. Halliburton’s then-subsidiary KBR is under Congressional investigation for shoddy wiring and maintenance following the electrocution deaths of a dozen U.S. military personnel in Iraq over five years. In one electrocution case, Army investigators found that KBR, which held a maintenance contract, knew of ungrounded wiring in a barracks but ‘the [KBR] contract did not cover fixing potential defects,’ according to a 2008 Houston Chronicle story. Halliburton’s own website boasts of the cost-cutting benefits of its well cement formula.”
Here’s a similar take on Bartlit from a commentary in the Anchorage Daily News, where residents know more than they want to about oil and spills.
OilWatchdog is calling on President Obama to do what his appointees wouldn’t, and remove Bartlit from the oil spill commission. It’s worth noting that one of those White House appointees, commission co-chair William Reilly, is on the board of directors of Conoco Phillips (though he temporarily suspended his membership after it critics noted the size of the apparent conflict)and owns substantial stock in the oil company, which has done joint projects with BP. No wonder his comments seem to echo Bartlit’s.
Bartlit’s conclusions are a slap at the families of the workers who died in the BP well’s explosive demise. They are an insult to small businesses along the Gulf Coast that have waited months for compensation, forcing some out of business.
There is just no way that cost was not the major factor in BP’s and Halliburton’s rush to shut down the well, despite weeks of problems that should have been a warning. An engineer hoping for a promotion doesn’t demand that everyone stop what they’re doing and rethink a well shutdown, no matter what trouble he senses, when his company’s No. 1 value is getting rid of the $500,000-a-day expense of a drilling rig.