Bhopal Gas Leak and BP Oil Spill

Bhopal and BP. They are two names that would ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with industrial disasters. Bhopal is a city in India where an industrial disaster in 1984 killed thousands people and maimed hundreds of thousands. BP (British Petroleum, BP Plc. ,), on the other hand is the name of a petroleum company (an energy industry super major) that appeared in international headlines recently for causing the worst marine oil spill in history.

The number of casualties associated with BP oil spill is rather negligible but damage the spill caused on environment and economy of some American states were immense and it is ranked amongst major industrial disasters. In both these disasters it was the corporate houses that were in the wrong. Union Carbide (UCC), the company that ran the pesticide plant in Bhopal, neglected the safety measures required while handling toxic materials and in the BP oils spill it is the negligence of British Petroleum that led to the accident on the oil rig “Deepwater Horizon” that ended up in the oil spill, which the company couldn’t stop for weeks.

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Though separated in time by decades and space by thousands of miles, both these disasters are connected in many respects. Curiously enough the final court verdict on the corporate culprits of Bhopal disaster came at a time when BP was busy capping the oil leak thousands of meters beneath the sea. In 1984 when the methyl isocyanate gas leak killed thousands in Bhopal the first thing Union Carbide management did was to put the blame on somebody else. In those years when Sikh militancy and terrorism were high in India UCC said the accident was the result of terrorist activity (nobody paid any attention to it).
This year when the oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico the first thing BP too tried to do was to put the blame on others –on Transocean Ltd (the company which owned the oil rig) and Halliburton, the company which manufactured the blow out presenter valve on the oil well. The media mocked this and BP dropped the strategy. In the Bhopal the US based corporation then argued that it should not be held legally responsible because the Indian subsidiary was a separate legal person with very minimal ties with US. At the time of the accident the UCC-based in New York City – owned 50. 9% of the UCC India Ltd. , 22% owned by govt.
of India and the rest by Indian citizens. The US court hearing the plea against UCC accepted the company’s contention and dismissed India’s pleas for justice. Later on humanitarian ground the company agreed to pay $470 million as compensation to victims of gas tragedy. In that pre-globalization period, India as a developing country had practically no clout over the US multinational company and finally it had to satisfy itself with prosecuting the Indian man agent of UCC India Ltd. In the case of BP oil spill too it was an instance of a company registered in one country creating problems in another country.
In the initial stage BP management tried to portray the liability issues as US action against British industry and ward of penal actions. In the case of BP oil spill, along with the news of gushing crude spreading all over the Gulf of Mexico, talks about pinning the corporate responsibility on BP also appeared in the headlines. There was intense pressure on president Osama’s administration to act tough on BP and it made BP to pay up $20 billion for the clean up operation. In the BP oil spill case the corporation had to bow before the government. It was a company from a weaker country against a global super power; US finally had its way.
The chief executive of BP had to own up responsibility for the fiasco and step down. 1 Pearce, Frank, Tombs, Steve (1990), ‘Ideology, Hegemony, And Empiricism: Compliance Theories of Regulation’, The British Journal of Criminology 30:423-443 2 Murru ,Maurizio (2004), ‘Bhopal 20 Years On: Globalization And Corporate Responsibility’, Health Policy And Development 250 volume 2 number 3 December 3 Amnesty International, 2004, Clouds of injustice, Bhopal disaster 20 years on, London 4 Broughton, Edward (2005), ‘The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review’, Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 4:6

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