Under my parents’ front garden in Bristol there is a lead pipe that once provided the main water supply to the house. In 2003, the pipe was capped off and a new water supply via a plastic pipe was installed in its place. The lead pipe lay a foot underground and was entirely forgotten about until June last year, when I went through it with a rotary hammer. Mains pressure water began to flow into the front garden. I decided to use a procedure known as Top Kill, where the lead pipe is repeatedly struck with a mallet until it closes off the leak. With this having failed and more and more water pouring out of the ground, my family began to ask serious questions about my handling of the spill that was endangering their precious front garden.
Day 2 and the leak continues. With Top-Kill having failed, I initiate Tap-Kill. Somewhere underground in a 40 by 40 foot area is a tap, or a number of taps, that can be turned off and end the leak. It takes hours of digging to follow the pipe until finally I find a tap. There is great optimism in the household, but it turns out to be a subsidiary tap that cannot turn off the main leak. Things are getting ugly for me, politically. Day 3. My parents call in their own experts to assess the situation. The plumber questions my original estimates for the amount of water being leaked into the front garden, suggesting the spill was much worse than had been originally assumed. He goes on to question the whole way in which I had gone about dealing with the spill, starting with Top Kill: ‘You were doing what with a mallet?’
By Day 4 of the spill my mother was under intense pressure to be seen as being in control of the situation. In a live address to the rest of the family she said: ‘we will make Ashley pay for the damage he has caused to our front garden.’ Earlier that day I had been overheard telling a friend that ‘I want my life back’ and that I ‘would like to spend some time doing something other than digging up the front garden trying to find taps’. This went down very badly in Bristol. Day 7. A week since the rotary hammer had struck the old mains pipe. I had dug a trench, one foot deep and over 20 feet long before I found the stop-cock for the pipe and the leak finally came to an end.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. 1) I’ve lost it, or 2) I am, like so many other upstart young journalists, trying to be clever by talking about politics with reference to my own life. In fact, both of these things are true but my experience over the summer genuinely gave me some sympathy for former BP CEO, Tony Hayward. Like me, Tony Hayward was the public face of an environmental disaster, albeit a far larger one than the one in my front garden. In May 2010, a few weeks into the spill, he told a US reporter ‘I want my life back’ – one of the biggest PR mistakes of modern times. The press leapt on it as an insensitive remark coming from the CEO of the company that was officially responsible for the disaster. Two months later, Tony Hayward was photographed on a yacht on the Isle of Wight, prompting anger from those that felt he should be ‘sorting out this mess’. The truth was that Hayward was on the Isle of Wight supporting his son in a boat race. It was the first time he had seen his son in three months. As he said to BBC’s Money Programme recently: ‘If I had a degree in public relations, rather than geology, things might have gone differently for me.’
Another parallel with my summer and Tony Hayward’s summer was that every time I did something that I thought would stop the spill, it failed. When things break, hitting the offending object is just one of those things you do, so bashing the pipe with a mallet was entirely sensible given the circumstances. After this failed, I took the next logical step and tried to push stuff into the pipe that would block it up, stuff like gravel and mud. This was directly inspired by BP. Top Kill, where BP pumped mud and golf balls into the blowout preventer, seemed silly but it might have worked were it not for the force of the oil acting against it. Top Hat, another scheme I imitated on a micro-scale, involved placing a huge ‘hat’ on top of the leaking well and funnelling the oil up onto a barge on the surface. For my Top Hat I used a hose forced onto the hole in the pipe, but alas, nothing could be found that would hold it in place. BP’s ‘hat’ became blocked by oil deposits before it could be placed above the leaking blowout preventer.
The devastation that occurred in the Gulf Coast last year affected both marine life and the lives of communities that depend on the region for fishing and tourism. It is right that those responsible are held to account and that procedures are changed, but the media storm that encircled Tony Hayward meant that all the anger that should have been directed at a dangerous industry was in fact directed at someone who was entirely unequipped to deal with what was happening around him. I find it extremely reassuring that BP’s former CEO is a geology graduate with poor PR skills – that is exactly the kind of person I want to be in charge of a major oil and gas firm. The worst thing that could become of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is if the people at the top of these companies are expected to be brilliant communicators as well as, or at the expense of, being professionals in a relevant field.