BP wants the world to think the company is a victim, that greedy people are taking advantage of its promise to “make things right” after its broken well spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The company’s PR machine has been in overdrive in recent months trying to sell that message. Nevermind that BP and its lawyers negotiated a court settlement setting up the process for handling damage claims and agreed to the terms, the oil giant is trying to change that process after the fact.
Worse, the company is running a smear campaign.
In a full-page ad in The New York Times last week, the company attacked a “celebrity chef” for filing a claim for $8 million in losses that it labeled as “fictional.”
The chef wasn’t named, but it was Emeril Lagasse. Mr. Lagasse can take care of himself just fine, no doubt. But BP’s attack is offensive and misleading.
Emeril’s Homebase management firm and the Deepwater Horizon claims administrator say his company’s claim was legitimate and was made according to settlement rules.
BP appealed the $8 million award amount and a three-person appeal panel — in accordance with the settlement terms agreed to by BP — reviewed the claim by Emeril’s Homebase. That panel found the claim had been handled properly.
Unhappy with that decision, BP apparently has decided to try to damage Mr. Lagasse’s reputation.
BP also is trying to get federal judges to change the rules midstream and require proof of direct harm from the spill rather than the more open-ended assumptions the company agreed to in the settlement.
Two judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in early December ordered U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to reconsider the issue and to temporarily halt payments for claims without the higher level of proof. A third 5th Circuit judge disagreed, and the matter is still unsettled.
The claim by Emeril’s Homebase precedes all that, and the company appears to have followed the rules. “Emeril’s Homebase filed a claim in accordance with the settlement agreement that was set forth by BP and administered by the federal court in New Orleans,” a company spokeswoman said. “We have not received any payment on the claim.”
Blaine LeCesne, a Loyola University tort law professor, said it is “highly misleading and unfairly disparaging” for BP to try to paint the Emeril’s Homebase claim as improper. “There’s no such thing as a fictional loss if the loss is shown under the eligibility formula that they consented to,” he said.
BP’s attempt to impugn Mr. Lagasse’s character could backfire. Since 2003, his New Orleans-based foundation has handed out more than $5.5 million in grants for children’s charities, particularly for school gardens and chef training in New Orleans. CafÃ© Reconcile, Edible Schoolyard NOLA, Liberty’s Kitchen, St. Michael Special School, Second Harvest Food Bank and other New Orleans area nonprofits have benefited from Mr. Lagasse’s generosity.
Ironically, he defended BP earlier this year when “Top Chef” was being filmed in New Orleans. “People can criticize BP all they want, but those guys stepped up to the plate and they did what they had to do,” he said in June. “Not only here, not only in Mississippi, not only in Alabama, not only in Florida – they took it very seriously.”
But his faith was misplaced. Thousands of residents and businesspeople along the Gulf Coast could have told him so.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood described his frustration with BP in June in an essay for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. “Every ad and public statement from BP mentions its ‘commitment to the Gulf.’ Sadly, BP has broken its ‘commitment’ when it comes to compensating victims through a legal process it helped create.” BP had begun sending “intimidating letters to Mississippians who have rightly been awarded claims payments through the settlement process, claiming BP may seek to ‘recover funds,’ ” he said.
The ad criticizing Mr. Lagasse’s claim is a high-profile version of those threats. Perhaps BP is hoping that the attack on Emeril’s Homebase will intimidate other people who’ve made claims and lack resources to fight back.
BP officials have some nerve attacking the people of the Gulf Coast.
Company officials misled the government about how much oil was flowing into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and broke apart in April 2010. It was to the company’s benefit to hide the amount because the more barrels spilled, the higher BP’s fines would be.
The company has pleaded guilty to criminal penalties in the oil spill, which killed 11 rig workers. Just this week, a former BP drilling engineer was convicted in U.S. District Court in New Orleans for obstructing a federal investigation by destroying evidence related to the spill.
Damage from the spill is ongoing, in Louisiana’s oyster beds and in the health of dolphins, sea turtles and the habitat for the state’s beloved brown pelicans and other birds.
If BP wants to make things right, it hasn’t even come close.