19 December 2011

The Language of Oil Spills

Over 30 years ago I worked for a maritime law firm which represented the French Government in litigation against Amoco Oil Company, owner of the oil tanker AMOCO CADIZ which grounded off the northwest coast of France in 1978, causing one of the biggest oil spills in history. I'm neither a lawyer nor an engineer, nor am I an expert in the petroleum field. My ten-year gig on this case was spent mostly as a document translator. But that experience gave me a real feel for the utter disconnect between what the oil companies say, what the oil companies mean, and what the reality is.

Now I sit on the eastern coast of Brazil with the threat of oil lapping the shores of my very own backyard, literally. Oil has been leaking from an offshore Chevron well since — let's see, Chevron says since November 9th, the Brazilian authorities say since November 7th. (That's only one of many inconsistencies.) Even though the oil may have drifted out to sea rather than onto shore, there remain a lot of questions and fingers are pointing like crazy. And it won't get any clearer, not for years to come. Don't waste your time trying to figure out the chronology or prepare your own time lines. Great minds, both engineering and legal, are already hard at work doing that, each to their own advantages.

Business English courses are springing up all over Brazil, but "corporate speak" English — the English that Chevron has been using — is a whole 'nother animal. "Corporate speak" is pure gobbledygook. It also minimizes whenever possible, like calling what's happened a "spill incident." That's so much lighter and less serious than an actual spill, isn't it? What a relief, we're just having an incident. Or referring to "the oil sheen" on the ocean's surface. I love that one. No thick, gloppy oil slick here, just a slight sheen, like the healthy sheen on a glowing face. The Brazilians believe that what's happened is an oil leak, and have consistently used the Portuguese word "vazamento" (for leak) in their discussions. Chevron, however, prefers the term "seep" as in, "We believe no new oil is seeping from the reservoir." More relief, our sheen is merely seeping, gradually and slowly.

Chevron president George Buck
A Brazilian friend of mine asked me last week why the president of Chevron Brasil, George Buck, sat at the "I'm-sorry-we're-doing-all-we-can" press conference and calmly read a prepared statement. This is most definitely not the way it's done in Brazil. Buck's Brazilian equivalent would have spoken emotionally, off the cuff, possibly with some tearing up, some self-deprecating humor and a few references to his family thrown in. Buck's performance did not go over well here. But in corporate America, that's the norm. It's what expensive legal departments are for. Chevron didn't deviate from the script for one nanosecond. First, Buck apologized for not speaking Portuguese. Then he offered sincere apologies to the Brazilian people. Then he stated that Chevron took full responsibility. (Just an aside, under maritime law that "full responsibility" will be shared with Chevron's partners, Petrobras and Frade Japão, as well as with Transocean as owner of the rig, Chevron's insurers and underwriters, with any manufacturer of any piece of equipment that might have had something to do with the "incident," and anyone else they can find.)

A huge blowup of this picture hung on my office wall during my AMOCO CADIZ lawsuit days. It shows the last piece of the vessel — looking an awful lot like the shark from Jaws — looming over the little Breton fishing village of Le Conquet. For those who might be wondering how it all came out, the law firm I worked for won the case against Amoco. Amoco appealed, and lost the appeal. It takes decades, but truth can prevail.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it really sounded strange to me. Read apologies didn't sound personal nor sincere. Even though he was speaking for the company I noticed the lack of some personal sorry words.
    This is my Brazilian point of view.