An email by Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, to the company’s employees offers a glimpse of the internal turmoil the oil spill in the US Gulf of Mexico has caused at the company.
Perhaps the most telling part was that Mr Hayward felt he needed to reassure his staff members that their jobs and pensions were safe and that the $142bn company could afford the massive response it has launched in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
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In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling at least 11m gallons of oil across 3,000 square miles into the crystal blue waters – overwhelming wildlife that some say has yet to fully recover more than 20 years later. Even though the spill was then the 30th biggest worldwide, it was the largest in the US and happened in what the national Environmental Protection Agency called “one of the most pristine and magnificent natural areas in the country.”
Images of oil-encased otters and birds were forever stamped on the American psyche. But they were images the public had come in recent years to associate with the past – so much so that President Barack Obama had proposed opening new offshore areas to the industry.
So far, the damage created by BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico appears to have been relatively modest, with the principal impact being on the fishing industry, which has been banned from an area covering 72,000 square km.
However, the incident has made many fear a repeat of the environmental disaster created by the Exxon Valdez.