Washington: The Gulf oil spill, with a British company the villain, is raising tensions on both sides of the Atlantic.
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron planned to discuss the environmental catastrophe Saturday by telephone, hoping to ease what has become a growing rift between the two countries over the criticism of the well’s owner, BP PLC.
As BP struggles unsuccessfully to halt the gushing oil that is bringing environmental chaos to the Gulf Coast, Obama has sharpened his criticism of the British company. He said he would have fired BP’s top executive if he were in charge, embraced the idea that the oil giant suspend its quarterly dividend and reproached BP for spending money on a public relations campaign.
And occasionally Obama would refer to “British Petroleum,” although the company years ago began using only its initials and, in fact, is a far-reaching international corporation with extensive holdings in the United States, including a Texas refinery and a share of the Alaska oil pipeline.
The sharp rhetoric from Washington, aimed to the address the concerns of angry Americans, especially those in the Gulf Coast region, has produced a backlash in Britain, where BP is viewed as one of the country’s corporate pillars. Millions of British retirees depend on BP dividends since pension funds are heavily invested in the oil company, the world’s third-largest.
Cameron has tried to find a middle ground. He has said he shares with Americans the “frustration” about not being able to halt the spill and concern about the environmental damage caused by the thousands of barrels of oil gushing from the BP well. But Cameron also views BP “as an economically important company” not only in the United Kingdom but also the United States and other countries, according to his office.
“It is in everyone’s interests that BP continues to be a financially strong and stable company,” Cameron has said.
In London, British Treasury chief George Osborne said Friday after meeting with top BP executives, that the British government understands U.S. concerns about the spill but “the prime minister is also clear that we need constructive solutions and that we remember the economic value BP brings to people in Britain and America.”
BP’s stock has dropped by some 40% since the 20 April Gulf oil rig fire that unleashed the country’s worst oil spill. But stocks have rebounded somewhat in recent days. BP shares rose $1.19, or 3.6%, to close at $33.97 in New York on Friday.
The company’s board is expected to meet Monday to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company’s liabilities from the spill are known. “So far, no decision has been taken,” BP spokesman Robert Wine said Friday.
BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who has faced criticism for not being more visible in BP’s response to the Gulf spill, is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Wednesday and likely will be accompanied by CEO Tony Hayward and other BP executives. It will be the first time Obama has met with BP officials since the oil spill crisis began 20 April.
Hayward, who has been a target of criticism because of a number of ill-advised comments he has made, also will be the key witness at a House hearing on Thursday where he is likely to be closely questioned by lawmakers concerning BP’s cleanup efforts and its commitment to people and businesses who have been economically harmed by the spill.
Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, have been sharply critical of BP, which owns the well that exploded, unleashing the massive spill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, is among a number of lawmakers who have called on BP to suspend its dividend payments.
The chief executive of Britain’s National Association of Pension Funds said Friday that investors might be receptive to a dividend suspension to protect the company’s long-term economic future. Whatever that future will be, for the time being BP remains the No. 1 environmental villain in the eyes of many Americans and that is unlikely to change until the flow of oil from its damaged well is stopped.