Six years ago, key leaders at BP invited me to visit them at their headquarters. I keep vivid impressions of this largest employer in England. BP executives were everywhere, from the libraries to nearly every place I dined. They had their own articulate drivers to take me around with public safety standards that went way beyond a Texas seatbelt.
What went so wrong, then, in a mere 72 months, the time it takes from birth to reach first grade? And why is BP's CEO Haywood seeking his boat to escape, and a time to get back his life?
BP's stated concern at the time was "Dr. Piasecki, what happens to an oil giant when it reaches over 300 billion in revenue?" BP knew at the time I had finished my book on the 600 largest corporations in the world, and they earnestly wanted to test if size matters. But in retrospect, these were the wrong questions.
After the last weeks watching the largest environmental disaster in American history unfold, I feel the social wake of the disaster grows in consequence each week. Yet most of the focus is on the consequences to President Obama and BP's CEO, Tony Haywood. Sure enough the firm has lost half its market cap, but what has society gained, and what has the world lost? Is not balance the right question?
William Blake once wrote that he could see the whole world in grain of sand. To be more accurate, I believe the world is now seeing this disaster as a first glimpse into the future of corporate governance. Future BPs will need to calculate their corporate risks and rewards in a much more visible way, not only with close regulators and friendly governments. This is why I believe the spill will over time create a new kind of corporate oversight from citizens. This is not a matter only of directors and boards.
First, some more bad news. This single BP oil disaster will add to the worst tensions in our world right now, the growing hatreds between the East and the West, between scientists and humanists, between advocates for sustainability and the strong stage of corporate apologists. That is a real costly consequence of BP's public arrogance and inability to clean up.
From this encounter between big oil, the Gulf of Mexico, our pelicans and our fisherman, I predict a new kind of global environmentalist -- Avatar Environmentalists -- to evolve rapidly. For the first time since the founding of most nation states, the court of public opinion on risk may outweigh the court of law. Like the 20 billion dollar reserve escrow inflicted by Obama on BP, this is unprecedented.