Soon after the hideous April 2010 gulf oil spill, Geir Robinson donned the title at BP of "vice president of economic recovery." A less formal title might just as well be "vice president for preserving BP's legacy." "We want our legacy to be that we did the right thing," Robinson said at least three times in a recent interview. BP's presence in Florida goes way beyond just what remains of the spill. The company has nearly 1,000 BP gas stations and retail outlets in the state. BP recently launched a 20,000-acre biofuels farm to produce ethanol in Highlands County, and it has terminals in Port Everglades and Jacksonville. I get all that. Who doesn't want a positive legacy after such a negative event? I only wish BP had "done the right thing" with as much dedication when the giant oil company was out in the gulf's deep waters on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Before it blew up, killing 11 men. Before it spewed 200 million or more gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and ruined thousands of miles of fishing waters. Before it damaged coastal economies and embroiled BP in one of the world's worst (and most expensive) environmental and PR nightmares.
If you've had your TV on for more than a few minutes lately, you've probably seen a BP ad that shows happy small-business folks in the gulf states gushing how great things are these days and how eager they are for "y'all" — meaning tourists — to "come on down" and spend some vacation time and money on the gulf states' good life.
According to the ads, it's been a good tourism year on the Gulf Coast. Certainly a lot better than 2010, the year of the spill. In Florida alone, BP's handed over more than $60 million to cover such advertising.
One TV ad features a bullish, four-state quartet: Bill Kearney of New Orleans' famous Galatoire's restaurant in Louisiana; Shaul Zislin of the Hangout food/music spot in Alabama's Gulf Shores; Mississippi's Gulf Coast Business Council's Karen Sock in Biloxi; and in Florida, Gulf World Marine Park's Ron Hardy in Panama City. Each of the four urges folks to visit them instead of the other three.
It's all good-natured fun in the ad, but also a sad reminder that BP oil contaminated about 491 miles of coastline from Louisiana to Florida.
The ad ends, as all of the ads do in this tourism series with a picture of the yellow and green BP logo and the words:
Brought to you by BP.
That, I confess, bugs me. I'm glad Florida and the other gulf states are getting more tourism advertising at BP's expense. But if you watch enough of these ads, it all begins to feel too canned. Too Pollyanna. Too self-serving.
You can watch the ads by the truckload online at youtube.com/bp.
Here's a global corporation that even after the 2010 tragedy boasts a market value topping a hefty $130 billion. Compare that, for example, to Progress Energy, this area's dominant power company, whose market value is a mere $16 billion. Even giant Bank of America is valued at only $57 billion or so. BP is big, much bigger than any business based in Florida.
These ads should be part of the bigger penance for BP's wrongdoing in the gulf. Instead, the ads over time start to feel like BP's paternalistic publicity campaign to help the little people on the Gulf Coast.
Robinson relocated from BP's London offices to Houston for his new gig as economic recovery vice president. He spends his time talking to the Gulf Coast state governments, consumers and business groups, trying to address their concerns and see what BP can do — within economic reason — to make things better.
He is not involved directly with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, run by Ken Feinberg and set up to administer the specific financial claims spawned by the oil spill.
The clock is ticking. Robinson says BP is about halfway through a three-year statute of limitations, set by the Oil Pollution Act, during which the company bears legal responsibility for oil spill claims. The trick is that three-year period starts when someone realizes they have sustained a loss from an oil spill and not from the day of the oil spill itself.
"It's a gray area," Robinson says. He figures most folks probably realized they had a loss by the summer of 2010 — about the time BP finally was able to cap the underwater spill. That means the statute of limitations would expire in the summer of 2013, when no further claims would be accepted.
Overall estimates of the oil spill cost to BP hover near $40 billion. The company has sold some of its global assets to raise funds needed to cover some of that expense.
"We're glad to see the economy has rebounded," Robinson says of the Gulf Coast. "It's a testament to the resiliency of the gulf." And, to BP's credit for a willingness to apologize, he adds: "We're sorry it happened."
As for BP's legacy in Florida, there are miles to go yet before that becomes clear.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]