As I write this, an oil tanker containing 20 million gallons, less the
roughly 2 million gallons that have already leaked out, has broken in half
and sunk off the coast of Spain. There are numerous reports as to the
ownership of the vessel as well as its "inspection" record in various
sketchy ports of call. The ship's owners are quick to defend themselves
against potential liability, Spain is jousting with Portugal over who's
going to pay for the cleanup, and there are already the usual wildlife
casualties of any such toxic disaster. But one thing is conspicuously
missing from this whole scenario: The oil's real owner.
If some faction with strained tangential links to Osama bin Laden or Al
Quaeda (is that this week's spelling of it?) had stormed the bridge and
demanded that the ship be rerouted to Cypress or the Palestinian
Territories, the oil's rightful owners would be howling bloody hell to the
U.S. State Department for Navy SEAL intervention and summary execution of
those responsible for the "hijacking." As is usually the case when things
go wrong with oil and energy, those deep pockets who could be held
accountable for the cleanup costs and damage to relevant countrysides are
nowhere to be found. Apparently the notion of corporate accountability is
still a lesson unlearned by multinational companies. You've got to hand it
to corporate officers and directors. Without them, it would be impossible
to believe that such highly educated people from the world's top
universities could be so tragically (and criminally) stupid.
Maybe it's the company's insurer that is causing all the headaches.
Who calls the shots in an instance like this? Is it the oil company which
will bear the brunt of a public relations nightmare revolving around its
inaction and irresponsibility? Probably not. They're already ducking and
covering behind their insurers, who will ultimately pay the price tag for
whatever claims arise. Being an ex-lawyer, I can already see the legal
machinations afoot in the press releases being fed to the international
media. "Well, the ship was recently inspected between Dubai and China, and
the whole thing is really the Spanish government's fault for keeping the
ship so far out at sea anyhow." This is rudimentary liability-insulation
language aimed at sending blame in every direction but the point of origin,
the stock-in-trade of insurance defense attorneys. And, excuse me, aren't
tankers supposed to be at sea and capable of enduring storms thereon?
Whoever the owner of the oil turns out to be, one thing is certain.
They will join a long list of incompetent corporate fools who fail to
realize that a substantial percentage of consumers will stop buying their
product because of this disaster and the company's lack of responsibility in
it. The harder the company fights, the more money they ultimately lose. A
fine illustration of this is all the people who stopped buying Exxon (now
ExxonMobile) gasoline after that company blighted the Alaskan coastline in
1989. Consumers are creatures of habit and once they get in the habit of
avoidance they tend to stick with a new supplier. Hence, ExxonMobile's
struggling figures since 1989. A similar fate awaits those whose oil was
being shipped aboard the doomed tanker. The longer they wait, the more
people will get incensed that their beaches are now off-limits. Spaniards
and Basque are known for living large and loving all the finer things in
life, like beaches, seafood, romance, and a great party. Having most of
their coastline reeking of oil and tar for the next decade will not go over
well. Spanish/Basque vengeance is not to be underestimated, either.
I hope that vengeance is as far-flung and terrifying as the vision of
Inigo Montoya's indefatigable rage tracking down his father's murderer.
Once again an oil company has defiled miles of pristine natural resources by
maximizing profits through the use of inadequate equipment and incompetent
personnel. No one, including the Spanish government, seems too interested
in which company is responsible for the cargo. Perhaps it's fear of
alienating a politically profitable ally, perhaps the insurance company's
lawyers are doing a stellar job of obfuscating the real issues at hand.
Regardless, the tragedy remains the same: a lifetime's worth of ruin for a
pickup truck's load of money. For such atrocious evil, several corporate
heads should roll down the quaint cobblestone streets of four or five
Spanish and Basque coastal towns that are older than Columbus' dream of East