Why does Massey deny responsibility while BP accepts it?

The explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia and the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig have many similarities, but one common difference: BP has finally taken responsibility for the oil rig disaster, while Massey Energy (owner/operator of Upper Big Branch) has yet to take responsibility for the coal mine disaster. Why? BP as an oil company is easy to target and boycott; Massey Energy is much less defined and more difficult to boycott.

BP is a brand, and people choose where they want to pump their gas. BP, Exxon, Sunoco, Shell, Texaco, Speedway, etc. People can make the conscious choice to avoid BP, so marketing matters — hence the reason they changed their acronym meaning from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000. Consumers can easily choose to boycott BP in the wake of the oil rig explosion and instead go to one of several other gas stations to fill up.

This is why they needed to retract their earlier defensiveness and refusal to admit wrongdoing in the oil rig explosion — all eyes were on BP, their reputation in jeopardy, and consumers wanting answers and an apology instead of avoidance and denial. To fix its image, BP had to step to the plate and take responsibility.

Massey Energy, on the other hand, doesn’t have this same need. As one of the top coal producers in the country, it doesn’t have a brand like BP. In fact, outside of Appalachia, people likely don’t attribute their energy use or energy bills to Massey, but to utility companies — American Electric Power, Pepco, etc.

So, unlike the BP disaster, Massey doesn’t feel as threatened to worry about its image because the consumers don’t directly get their energy from Massey. Massey is the sixth-largest coal producer in the United States, and though it only accounts for 3.4 percent of the total amount of coal produced in the U.S., it wields a lot of power without being beholden directly to the people who consume the coal they produce to power houses, buildings, and cities.

This is why Massey CEO Don Blankenship can sit in front of Congress and blame the government for the mining disaster without flinching, even though there are countless accounts from workers, safety inspecters, and the numerous safety violations against Massey that paint a picture of the coal mine as dangerous, unsafe, and irresponsibly managed.

What does Blankenship have to lose? He’s in a market in which his company is the most powerful in the Appalachian region, and his employees are scared to death to talk to reporters openly about the working conditions of the coal mines. Reuters got a lot of interesting information — for instance about 18-20 hour work days and other lax safety standards — but that information was from retired workers. No one wants to risk losing his or her decent-paying job (difficult to find in the poor areas of West Virginia), especially in the current shaky economy.

Coal is a different beast than oil — you put oil directly in your car or other fossil-fueled vehicle and as an individual have consumer power to directly choose what company that oil comes from. Not so with coal — you don’t toss coal into a stove, purchasing the coal directly from the company who mined it. You use lightswitches, you plug your appliances into electrical outlets, and you send an electricity bill to a company who more directly deals with the coal.

This is why Massey can more easily argue that his hands are clean, despite countless evidence and testimony against him. Unfair? Definitely. But I think Blakenship’s attempts to do damage control aren’t going to win very many people over — Congress and government officials seemed utterly unimpressed and baffled that he even tried to make some of the arguments he made. I hope that even though Massey is currently on the offensive, eventually it too will have to cave to public demand and pressure to take responsibility for its actions and actually become more concerned with safety than profits.

At the least, it will take shareholder action, job creation in West Virginia (even though Massey is non-Union, people flock to the jobs because they pay well), and a public outcry via letters and calls to government officials to keep the attention on Massey so it doesn’t simply wait for this disaster to blow over so it can go back to counting money and working people to the bone, regardless of their well-being.

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