[This is the headline over an article by Bret Stephens in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal. It reads in part:]
What Barack Obama taketh away, Moammar Gadhafi giveth. That must be the fond hope these days at BP, as it seeks to recoup in Libya's Gulf of Sidra what it is losing in the Gulf of Mexico. (...)
Yesterday, the chairman of Libya's National Oil Co told Zawya Dow Jones that he would urge Libya's sovereign wealth fund to buy a strategic stake in the troubled oil giant. That follows news that Libya will allow BP to begin deepwater drilling next month off Libya's coast as part of a $900 million exploration deal initially agreed upon in 2007. (...)
This rare patch of sunshine for BP arrives almost simultaneously with reports of another sort. Over the weekend, London's Sunday Times reported that a doctor who last year diagnosed Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi with metastatic prostate cancer and gave him three months to live now thinks the former Libyan intelligence agent "could survive for 10 years or more." (...)
Megrahi's not-so-surprising longevity is the latest sordid twist in a tale in which BP is no bystander. It begins in 2004, with efforts by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to rehabilitate Col Gadhafi and open Libya to British commercial interests. BP inked its exploration deal with Libya following a second visit by Mr Blair in 2007. But the deal nearly ran aground after the UK took its time finalizing a prisoner transfer agreement between the two countries.
It was at this point that BP became concerned. As this newspaper reported last September, BP admits that in 2007 it "told the UK government . . . it was concerned that a delay in concluding a prisoner transfer agrement with the Libyan government might hurt" the deal it had just signed. BP also told the Journal that a special adviser to the company named Mark Allen, formerly of MI6 and well-connected in Labour Party circles, raised the transfer agreement issue with then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw, though the company also says the two did not discuss Megrahi.
On what basis (other than sheer mercantilism) would a BP adviser raise a prisoner transfer agreement with senior UK officials? I put that question to a BP spokesperson and was told I'd hear back "shortly." As of press time, I still hadn't.
As for the UK and Scottish governments, their denials that Megrahi's release had anything to do with BP and other oil interests could not be more emphatic. "The idea that the British government and the Libyan government would sit down and somehow barter over the freedom or the life of this Libyan prisoner and make it form some part of some business deal . . . it's not only wrong, it's completely implausible and actually quite offensive," said then-UK Business Secretary Peter Mandelson at the time of Megrahi's release.
Yet as the Sunday Times reported last year, in 2007 Mr Straw wrote his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill, the man who ultimately decided on Megrahi's release, that the UK would not exclude the Libyan from the prisoner agreement. "The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage," Mr Straw wrote, "and in view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed in this instance the [prisoner agreement] should be in the standard form and not mention any individual."
Weeks later, Libya formally ratified its deal with BP, though it was again subject to bureaucratic delays until Megrahi's release. BP denied last year that the delays were anything other than routine. But the Libyans have been less than coy about the linkage: "People should not get angry because we were talking about commerce or oil," Gadhafi's son Seif said after Megrahi's release.
BP has now spent the past 11 weeks promising to make things right for everyone affected by the Gulf spill. But for the families of Pan Am Flight 103's 270 victims, things can never be made right. Nor, following Megrahi's release, will justice ever be served. The question that BP could usefully answer—and answer fully—is whether, in that denial of justice, their interests were served. It won't restore the company to honor, but it might do something to restore a measure of trust.