It took more than a year for a dogged Texan lawyer, Brent Coon, to get the former BP boss Lord Browne to answer questions on the legal record about the Texas City oil disaster. It turns out that the noble lord’s knowledge of the tragedy was fuzzy, to say the least.
A transcript was made public this week of an hour-long deposition given by Browne about the notorious 2005 tragedy at BP’s Texas City refinery in which a group of exhausted labourers overfilled a dilapidated vertical drum with chemicals, causing an explosion which showered burning liquid over accommodation trailers nearby. The blast shattered windows on houses three quarters of a mile away.
The most common phrase in the 76-page deposition? It’s a toss-up between “I was not aware” and “I don’t recall”.
The fire, which killed 15 people and was America’s worst industrial accident for a generation, took place on Browne’s watch. The day after it happened, he flew straight to the plant to give a press conference in which he declared that it was the worst tragedy he had known in 38 years at BP.
“The full resources of BP will be made available to investigate the causes of this tragedy,” Browne told local people. “There is no stone left unturned in making sure all events are investigated and remediation is done after the event.”
Since then, all events have duly been investigated thoroughly – and the findings were often damning about BP’s internal safety culture. But Browne seems to have stayed oddly detached from such revelations, even before his resignation in May last year for lying to a court about his personal life.
While Browne was still in situ, the US Chemical Safety Board published its findings – which said three of the people involved in the accident had worked 12-hour shifts for more than 30 days on the trot.
“Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it,” said the board, which found “organisational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP corporation”.
This is strong stuff – but Browne wasn’t aware just how strong because he never bothered to read the report. In his deposition, he told Coon that its contents had been “described to me in a meeting”, adding: “It was very, very long, I believe.”