Furious Growth and Cost Cuts Led to BP Accidents Past and Present
By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
More coverage of the Gulf oil spill (ProPublica)
Slideshow: A Tour of BP (ProPublica)
Jeanne Pascal turned on her TV April 21 to see a towering spindle of black smoke slithering into the sky from an oil platform on the oceanic expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. For hours she sat, transfixed on an overstuffed couch in her Seattle home, her feelings shifting from shock to anger.
Pascal, a career Environmental Protection Agency attorney only seven weeks into her retirement, knew as much as anyone in the federal government about BP, the company that owned the well. She understood in an instant what it would take others months to grasp: In BP's 15-year quest to compete with the world's biggest oil companies, its managers had become deaf to risk and systematically gambled with safety at hundreds of facilities and with thousands of employees' lives.
"God, they just don't learn," she remembers thinking.
Just weeks before the explosion, President Obama had announced a historic expansion of deep-water drilling in the Gulf, where BP held the majority of the drilling leases. The administration considered the environmental record of drilling companies in the Gulf to be excellent. It didn't ask questions about BP, and it didn't consider that the company's long record of safety violations and environmental accidents might be important, according to Carol Browner, the White House environmental adviser.
They could have asked Jeanne Pascal.
For 12 years, Pascal had wrestled with whether BP's pattern of misconduct should disqualify it from receiving billions of dollars in government contracts and other benefits. Federal law empowers government officials to "debar" -- ban from government business --companies that commit fraud or break the law too many times. Pascal was a senior EPA debarment attorney for the Northwest, and her job was to act as a sort of behind-the-scenes babysitter for companies facing debarment. She worked with their top management, reviewed records and made sure they were good corporate citizens entitled to government contracts.
At first, Pascal thought BP would be another routine assignment. Over the years she'd persuaded hundreds of troubled energy, mining and waste-disposal companies to quickly change their behavior. But BP was in its own league. On her watch she would see BP charged with four federal crimes -- more than any other oil company in her experience -- and demonstrate what she described as a pattern of disregard for regulations and for the EPA. By late 2009 she was warning the government and BP executives themselves that the company's approach to safety and environmental issues made another disaster likely.
Read more of the story on ProPublica's website.