By any other name, “British Petroleum” still smells bad

The NYT reported that the British are now unhappy that some Americans are calling BP “British Petroleum.”  So I wrote a humorous column for Salon, which they headlined, “It’ll always be ‘British Petroleum’ to me,” though I was kind of partial to “The British Invasion” or “The B’s are coming”:

Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, blogged last week that “BP has not — for many years — stood for British Petroleum — you won’t find the two words anywhere in its annual report.”

Nelson said calling BP by its original name was “anti-British rhetoric.” He actually pined for the days of the previous president:

“It’s hard to imagine Bush using the rhetoric that Obama has so quickly resorted to. It does make you wonder: is there still a ‘special relationship’ or is America just not that into us?”

Yeah, Bush did wonders for the special relationship. He really respected you Brits in the morning — just ask Tony Blair, aka “Bush’s lapdog.” In fact, President Obama has already phoned the new British prime minister, David Cameron, to make clear that “he had no interest in undermining BP’s value.” Duh. We need BP solvent since it’s not like we’re made of money on the polluted side of the pond.

But I thought the Brits were the ones with the long history and stiff upper lip. Now it turns out they have short memories and a glass jaw. Or at least an oily one.

It was not even two years ago that Gordon Brown, then Britain’s prime minister, used America as an excuse for British economic problems. On the BBC in November 2008, an interviewer asked Brown “how precarious is the position of the UK economy? Are we on the edge of a precipice?” He replied:

“No. But the global economy is in great difficulty. I mean what’s happened is we’ve had a banking crisis which started in America; makes me incredibly angry about what happened, the irresponsibility of risk taking and the irresponsibility of not disclosing things.”

Memo to Brits: Americans are incredibly angry about what happened, the irresponsibility of risk-taking and the irresponsibility of not disclosing things — by British Petroleum. Tell you what: We’ll take the blame for Goldman Sachs (or GS, as I’m sure it’ll soon be renamed), if you acknowledge BP as one of yours.

Heck, just read BP Magazine — yes, it has its own magazine; there’s so much we don’t know about this misunderstood petro-giant. A 2007 article begins, “With its distinct British heritage, BP is as much a part of the UK landscape as football, tea drinking and the Royal Family.”

So are the Brits really saying that calling their veddy, veddy British company “British Petroleum” is somehow an insult, a threat to our “special” relationship? Does that mean we must stop using the word entirely, rewrite our whole history, starting with, say, the Revolutionary War. “The B’s are coming. The B’s are coming.”

Let’s remember that BP changed its name from British Petroleum in large part to push the phony rebranding of “Beyond Petroleum.” As it turns out, though, they just can’t quit oil. It runs through their veins … and onto our shores.

But here’s something I bet even most Brits didn’t know, even though it’s right there on BP’s website:

Despite its name, the British Petroleum brand was originally created by a German firm as a way of marketing its products in Britain. During the war, the British government seized the company’s assets, and the Public Trustee sold them to Anglo-Persian in 1917.

Hmm. Seizing the company’s assets. What a novel idea. But I digress. The Anglo-Persian Oil Co. didn’t go for the German propaganda name right away. First, as those droll Brits at BP put it: “Persia changed its name to Iran in 1935, and to stay modern the company followed suit. But the good times wouldn’t last much longer.”

No, they wouldn’t. First there was that whole world war thing. But what led the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. to rename itself British Petroleum was that 1953 kerfuffle in which the CIA teamed with the Brits to overthrow the Iranian government and install the shah in a coup. Talk about your special relationship!

Ah, but the bromance is gone. Last week, the mayor of London asserted that BP was a victim of “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.” Yes, BP is the victim here.

Here’s what I have to say to the Brits: We tied your arses in soccer, yes, soccer — football is a game where people get seriously hurt and tournament games don’t end in ties! But it still doesn’t make up for what the reckless blokes running your big oil company did to us. Never have so few done so much to so many.

As the fake BP Public Relations twitter site put it:

England vs. USA recap: “Football”: England 1 – USA 1 : “Crapping in the other’s Gulf”: England 54 – USA 0

We never thought of you as whiners until the CEO of your big oil company started saying stuff like “I’d like my life back” and “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” and even “I’m a Brit. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Well, let me tell you, we’d greatly prefer sticks and stones to 100 million gallons of oil and a million gallons of toxic dispersants.

So, man up. We’re gonna keep calling it British Petroleum. And if you keep complaining, we might start calling it the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Let’s see what that does for business.

See also “It’s not us, it’s you.”

26 Responses to By any other name, “British Petroleum” still smells bad

  1. mark says:

    let me be the first to say:


    You might be getting an offer from “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report”

    I really like this:

    “But the good times wouldn’t last much longer.””

    yeah, really really good times, especially for those Iranians.

    I believe the Iranians offered to pay full price for what they nationalized, but that I guess that wasn’t good enough for the British.

    So, they went called upon their “special relationship” friends, the CIA to overthrow a democracy, to bring back the “good times”

    Thanks, for the nasty chuckle.

  2. catman306 says:

    “Last night, Olbermann talks to one women who says the BP is gather the dead animals before they can be examed or photographed as the ONLY organized thing BP does.”

    That was posted over at kenneth drum. Maybe someone has the link.

    Thinking of one good thing to say about BP: I like their corporate colors.

  3. Philip says:

    Disaggregate and then denigrate, s’il vous plait.

  4. Rick Covert says:

    I think we could agree that labeling some things “British” are good or bad.

    British Petroleum: Bad :-(
    British Invasion (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Burdon, etc.): Good :-)
    British Empire: Bad :-(
    2nd British Invasion (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Derrick and the Dominoes, etc.): Good :-)

    So let’s oblige BP and call them by their original name: Anglo-Persian Oil, the company who got Britain’s MI-6 and the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian president, Mohamed Mosadek, and got the infamous Shah of Iran reinstated with the assistance of an Iranian General with sympathies to Nazi Germany. Feel better now?

  5. The problem, Joe, is that BP is a huge multinational conglomerate that is owned by American corporations as much as British ones.
    I think you’ve made a category error – BP isn’t British, it’s a corporation that, as Robert Reich pointed out yesterday, is really just a mess of contracts, accounting documents and drilling permits bundled into a marketing slogan; BP.
    Most of the biggest wealth and retirement management funds own big chunks of the company, which means many working Americans own BP too.
    See our post at Greenenergyreporter here:

    [JR: The category was “humor.” Not an error, I hope. More seriously, BP clearly thinks of itself as an uber-British company.]

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    No one force any foreign banks, or domestic US banks, to invest in the crappy mortgage backed derivatives. They were told the risk had been determined to be good.

    I understand that BP calculated that the risk of a blowout was zero (unbelievably ridiculous!). Both cases are an example of NOT FULLY UNDERSTANDING THE RISK! All parties involved, including the American people, need to fully comprehend the risk of deepwater drilling. If you want oil from under the ocean you must expect oil on the beach; that simple. We still have blowouts and leaks at continental oil fields. The above ground oil pipelines develop leaks. Why does anyone expect the underwater operations to be any different? Why would anyone think the risk of an accident would be lower underwater?

    This could have happened to any oil company that drills offshore. Shell just finished a well in 8,000 feet of water 200 miles off the coast of Texas. What nightmare would develop if the BOP fails at that depth? I have heard interviews with two retired oil industry executives who do not have much confidence in the current technology AND WE ALL KNOW the technology to deal with underwater blowouts is the same as it was more than 40 years ago. You can tell the technology, to deal with deepwater blowouts, DOES NOT EXIST when people talk of blowing up the well as a good solution.

    The Brits need to get over being upset. It is a British company that used to proudly call itself British Petroleum. I understand they changed the name, and now the British are so ashamed that it was once know as British Petroleum that know one is to mention it. But know one is blaming the British people for the disaster. No one is blaming the British people for any negligence on the part of BP. Last night Colbert had a very good bit regarding the thin British skin.

    BTW – to read about Shells deepwater well:

  7. Turboblocke says:

    My, my. An interesting look at BP’s history which misses out:
    “British Petroleum merged with Amoco (formerly Standard Oil of Indiana) in December 1998,[30] becoming BP Amoco plc.[31] In 2000, BP Amoco acquired Arco (Atlantic Richfield Co.)[32] and Burmah Castrol plc.[33]”

    and neglects to mention that BP’s work force has twice as many Americans as Brits and that about half it’s directors are American.

    And while we’re talking about disasters does Bhopal/Union Carbide ring any bells…

    “President Barack Obama’s vilification of “British Petroleum” stands in stark contrast to the approach taken to Union Carbide, the US firm responsible for the Bhopal disaster which killed about 3,000 people instantly in India in 1984. Some estimates put the final death toll at about 25,000.

    For the past 26 years, Warren Anderson, chief executive of Union Carbide at the time, has been in breach of bail conditions set by the Indian courts. The Indians wanted to put him on trial on charges of “culpable homicide” over safety failures which allowed 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas to leak from the firm’s pesticide factory, enveloping the town.

    However, Anderson left the country after being given bail and has never returned, even though he signed a legal agreement to face charges there. In 2004 America rejected an attempt to extradite him.

    The disaster, the world’s worst industrial accident, left an estimated 500,000 people with damage to their breathing, sight and mental health…”

    Seems to me that racism is not buried deeply here.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    I don’t think anyone would deny that US companies have committed terrible crimes. Big oil, big coal, natural gas companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, fireworks manufacturers, please add any others I have missed.

    Ok, BP is a mostly US company. So the Brits are ok if the US government puts it in receivership? Being mostly US I’m sure they will not even give it a second thought.

  9. Turboblocke says:

    To Michael Tucker at No.8: it’s interesting that there is talk of putting BP into receivership. Would it be fast tracked unlike what happened in the Exxon Valdez case?

    Interesting that 21 years on from that spill, there is no talk of putting Exxon into receivership… just let it carry on. I wonder why? Is it because it’s perceived to be a US company through and through?

    Perhaps time for some black humour:

  10. Richard C says:

    Turboblocke, apparently this is a “Local site for local people”.

  11. Michael Tucker says:

    Turboblocke #9,

    All good questions. So far, no one in the administration is asking for receivership for BP; just the talking heads. Sorry, not being involved with the current or past administrations I am unable to answer your questions.

  12. Fire Mountain says:

    Big Polluters
    Bankrupt Profiteers
    Bastard Pigs

    I wonder how many hundreds of millions of “Beyond Petroleum” image advertising that just went down the drain (or out the pipe as it were)?

    And where are all those commercials from American Petroleum Institute with the pretty lady telling us all about the good things brought to us by “The people of the oil and gas industry”?

  13. Bill Ouimet says:

    “Chickens commin home to roost”. When your Wright your Wright!

  14. Lamont says:

    If this is just another conglomerate and the B has nothing to do with ‘British’, then why are they whining so much about British pensioners being affected?

  15. Raul says:

    Lets see, costs were cut, employees, safety, but they probably wouldn’t
    proxy little old ladies holdings though and just call it a bonus.

  16. Robert says:


    And here I thought you Brits had a sense of humor.

  17. John Ruddy says:

    I think many american commentators are missing the nuances of these calls of “anti-britishness” on the part of the US. Loko at who are making these accusations – newspapers like the Daily Mail (ultra right-wing climate deniers) and the Sun (owned by ultra right-wing Rupert Murdoch), and right wing politicians like Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) and that means pressure on the Conservative Prime Minister.

    Most of Britain isn’t concerned about Obama calling BP British Petroleum – thats what WE think of when we hear BP, regardless of any marketing exercise. Our daily lives are full of companies where we think theres still ‘British’ in the name – BA, BT, BAA, BG, BP.

    The pensioner’s thing is a red herring, yes it will affect pension funds, both here in the UK and in the US, but BP is still only a small part of any fund portfolio – and something like this may make such funds take a more active role in what the companies they invest in are doing – and act like the owners they really are.

    What this spill has really done over here, is make us ashamed at being British, and that is no ones fault except BP.

  18. Steve Brown says:

    Just to back up John Ruddy’s comment above, the overwhelming majority of us Brits aren’t “whining” about anything. What we do have is a small section of the right-wing media here in the UK that have sympathies with the US Tea-Party movement and a rabid dislike of the current make-up of our new government. They are just trying to apply pressure on the relatively liberal government by spinning non-stories. The newspapers behind it such as the Daily Mail pretty much stand for the anti-science, extreme right-wing nutjobs and would rather have the UK Independence Party in Power (they who now have Monckton as deputy leader).

    The only thing we feel for BP is shame at this once great British institution, and sadness for what the folks in the Gulf region are having to deal with.

  19. Robert says:

    john Ruddy,

    Speak for yourself. I’m not ashamed of being British but I am ashamed at being a member of the human race.

    Ask any other species.

  20. Nick Downie says:

    As a Brit, and even as a human being, I was highly amused by Joe’s piece in Salon. It reminded me of that hysterically funny industrial incident attributed to Union Carbide (UCC), now owned by Dow Chemical. The similarities between the generosity displayed by the management of UCC and the forceful attitude of the US government regarding the responsibilities of that company compare strikingly well with the sums that BP is expected to pay out now, and with Obama’s outrage, not to mention the veritable storm of protest that emanated from the good folk of the USA at UCC’s mistake. It must make one proud to be American.

    [JR: Classic British dry humor. Not sure I’ve heard Obama express outrage at the Brits, probably because he hasn’t. CP readers I am quite critical of our role in humanity’s self-destruction. Bad U.S. actions don’t free “British Petroleum” or Tony Hayward from ridicule, tho.]

    For those too young to remember, let me share the joke.

    Back in 1984, at 10.30pm one November night, a UCC factory released a cloud of gas over a nearby town. As of today’s date UCC has resolutely refused to say what chemicals the cloud may have consisted of, but it is believed by some idiots to have contained something called hydrogen cyanide, and also phosgene and carbon monoxide. Several thousand people were asphyxiated almost immediately, and over the course of the next few days the death toll rose to between 20-30,000. (The 20,000 figure was based on hospital records but we all know how unreliable they can be.) Either way, in 1991 the officially-accepted compensatable figure was set at 3,928 dead. To complicate matters a bit, a further 20,000 are believed to have died from gas-related diseases in subsequent years, and between 100,000 and 200,000 people are reckoned to have acquired permanent disabilities of varying degree.

    But hey, no one’s counting too carefully because the really amusing thing is that these people weren’t Americans, they were Indians! Doesn’t it just crack you up?

    And do you know, all UCC had to pay up was $470 million! This was what their insurance policy allowed, so it didn’t affect their bottom line or dividends by even a single cent. What a gas! (Sorry, that’s maybe inappropriate.)

    It must have been a good insurance policy too because it covered gross negligence. Since 1981 there had been a series of gas accidents resulting in the death and injury of factory workers. The Indian authorities warned the company several times about its procedures; in 1981 a visiting team of US experts warned UCC of the potential for a “runaway reaction”, and just months before the accident UCC’s own American scientists warned of a possible gas release almost identical to that which soon occurred. All such advice was ignored.

    However, ten days after the ‘accident’, the Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, addressed the US Congress, stressing the company’s “commitment to safety” and promising to ensure that a similar accident “cannot happen again”, so everyone – in the US – immediately felt better about it.

    Three days before this, Warren Anderson made the big mistake of visiting India, where he was promptly arrested, but he was released on $2,100 bail, after which he promptly boarded a plane and flew out of the country, never to return. The Indians later charged him with manslaughter, which carries a ten-year jail term, and tried to have him extradited from the US. The US authorities did nothing, even though a clear extradition treaty existed. Anderson has managed to avoid both an international arrest warrant and a US court summons. But never mind. Nine days ago, seven Indian nationals were finally convicted of causing death by negligence, fined $2,124 each and sentenced to two years. All are currently out on bail, but justice has undoubtedly finally been done.

    Ten years after the leak, full and final compensation was paid to individuals: $803 for permanent injury, and $2,070 for each death – limited to the legally-agreed figure of 3,928 dead. (I wonder what BP will be expected to pay for temporarily interrupting the business of a Louisiana sea-food restaurant.)

    Of course, various half-witted Indians have made attempts to institute class actions against UCC in the US courts, but their pleas have been turned down by several courts in New York City, as has an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

    Anyway, the name of this hick Indian town was Bhopal. Bho-Pal. Geddit? BP! I would tell you more but I’m now laughing so hard that I think I’m going to be sick all over my keyboard.

  21. Turboblocke says:

    And let’s not forget Piper Alpha where an American company killed 167 people on an oil rig in the North Sea.

    meanwhile the latest news seems to be an attempt to pin the Exxon Valdez spill on BP…

  22. Nick Downie says:

    Thank you for letting my comment through, Joe. I wasn’t at all sure that you would. Just for the record, I’m not the least bit anti-American – I’ve met hundreds of Americans all over the States and elsewhere, and I’ve liked almost every one of them. I deplore aspects of the US (the CIA in particular) but I also deplore aspects of the UK.

    My problem with this appalling mess in the Gulf is that I think too much blame is being foisted on BP, not because it’s British (which is just plain silly) but as a company. The blame-game seems to be allowing the good ol’ consumer off the hook. It’s because of us that BP and the rest are taking these insane risks and we ALL share a heavy measure of the responsibility, just as do the consumers of cocaine for the thousands of murders currently being committed in Mexico.

    To wriggle out of it by sneering at T. Hayward Esq., clown though he may be, strikes me as arrant hypocrisy. And it was hypocrisy that I was getting at above.

    [JR: Well, BP clearly has the worst safety record in the business, and cut corners to meet Hayward’s ruthless cost-cutting. And Hayward is some combination of tone deaf and incompetent. So I give them 90% blame.]

  23. Nick Downie says:

    Does it? Did it? Are you absolutely, 100%, scientifically sure about that? How about giving them, say, 51%.

  24. Nick Downie says:

    From today’s Dow Jones Newswires:

    “Henry Waxman, a Democrat and the chairman of the panel, said that oil-spill response plans provided by the companies to the committee show that Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell “are no better prepared to deal with a major oil spill than BP”.

    He said that four plans discussed how to protect walruses.”

    People have laughed at this, which is grossly unfair because what these companies were clearly referring to was Walrusicus louisianica. This, as we all know, is an extremely valuable species of sea-going Gulf snail, and their concern for it is wholly admirable. The report goes on:

    “Ed Markey, a Democrat, said that “two other plans are such dead ringers for BP’s that they list a phone number for the same long-dead expert.” ”

    The only person not laughing at this is the expert’s supposed widow, because Big Oil has inadvertently revealed that her insurance claim for her spouse’s death is actually fraudulent.

  25. fred says:

    I’m just surprised the british press got it so wrong. i’m probably unusual in that i watch more british news than the average american, there are “sources” for such things on the net these days;) But because of this i got to see bbc newsnight and channel 4 and their appalling coverage on this issue. Every time they commented on it there was an insinuation that there was a understood anti british sentiment in the us, implying that the uk viewer has a rather low opinion of americans in the first place. Its like they thought their audience expected them to say that. They spoke about it the way that a fox news newsperson would say some baseless thing in a way that projects the notion that it must be just because they say it is. You know…about those stupid liberals..switch that with americans and you get the tone.

    Its not as if the bbc have no correspondents in the usa, or that they can’t watch american media. Theres not even a language barrier. How channel4 and bbc newsnight etc can all fall down on this issue not just once, but for many days of coverage repeating the same lies over and over again really was disappointing to see. I thought the bbc had a slightly higher standard than that.

    And to misread the simple comments of bp as british petroleum as somehow something to take affront to was just odd. Most people probably thought bp meant british petroleum, to pretend otherwise is to be a bit dishonest about the whole thing. Not that it matters anyways, its just their name, to make it a national insult is going way over board. If british petroleum had renamed themselves to OMG corp and obama kept calling it british petroleum then perhaps there would be something to argue about. But people know very well the bp name implied british petroleum, and for anyone not keeping track of corporate name games, they were one and the same GM is general motors after all, its just not normal to assume that GM and general motors are totally separate companies. I’ve seen time and time again brits commenting that bp isn’t british petroleum, imagine if americans said that gm wasn’t general motors …even if it were actually done it would be nothing more than trivia to most people. Never mind something to take offense at, clearly the initials trade on the original name for recognition.

  26. Tim Joslin says:

    Joe, I would have thought what you’re trying to do with your blog in general is to win friends and influence people. This comes across as a bit of an anti-British rant. I fail to see how it’s called for, and wonder whether it really supports your broader project to build a coalition for “Climate Progress”.

    A lot of anti-British jibes of one sort or another have been reported over here since the spill and some aspects of the way Tony Hayward has been treated have come across as disrespectful, even though we can all see he hasn’t come across well, to say the least. Everyone just shrugged this off, stiff upper lip and all that, until people started to get concerned about the financial cost to BP, since its stock happens to form a large proportion of UK pension funds. It wasn’t so much the racism per se that most people were reacting to, though I expect there’ve been a few raised eyebrows, but that this was part of an ad hoc, rather than legal, process of confiscating the company’s assets.

    It seemed for a while that the company could be put out of business, and that no-one up to and including the President was doing a lot to calm things down. Aren’t the courts there to establish the liabilities of the various parties in due course? There was a bit of a clamour for our PM to intervene to try to prevent the situation getting out of control. So that’s what he did.

    So to sum up, we get a load of abuse, politely point out that this is what we’re hearing and we’re wondering how this might materially affect us, and get a load more abuse like your “humorous” piece.

    [JR: I have been to Great Britain many times and I’ve always admired you folks for your dry sense of humor. I read the piece again and it is light stuff. Also, I don’t think there was ever much chance the company could be put out of business — but why would you care if it’s not an specially British company?

    BP likes to tout itself as a veddy veddy British company when it suits his purposes, likes to pretend it is Beyond Petroleum when that suits its purposes. The point of calling it British Petroleum is not so much the “British” part as the “petroleum” part.

    BTW, What “load of abuse” did the British people get? Seriously, what? “Politely”? That is dry. Anyway, the piece was marked as humor. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.]