It's also nowhere near the around $40 billion BP has estimated the 85-day Gulf spill cost them, including response and compensation. Those costs are in flux because not all litigation has been resolved.
"Even in the event of the shutdown of the whole Elgin field, Fitch believes Total is likely to retain its 'AA' credit rating as it has the cash resources to more than cover any associated costs," Fitch said in a statement a few days into the leak. "These sorts of accidents are often difficult to resolve and unpredictable; nonetheless, in our view the potential is low for this leak to escalate to a crisis on the scale of Deepwater Horizon."
But, as de La Chevardiere noted, the comparisons are almost irresistible.
"The comparison (with the Gulf spill) now is wholly unavoidable, just as for BP and the Deepwater Horizon spill, the comparison with Exxon Valdez was unavoidable," said Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president with Levick Strategic Communications, which advises clients on communicating in a crisis. "We have a new standard by which all leaks will be measured."
But that doesn't mean that the mere invocation of BP sullies Total's reputation. Grabowski said that if the environmental damage is limited, then he expected the long-term impact of the spill to be fairly muted.
Eric Smith, the associate director of the Energy Institute at Tulane University in Louisiana, said the company appeared to have learned one lesson from BP: that less information is better. He pointed to the fact that industry experts had expected most of the ways BP tried to plug its leak would fail; that's simply how disaster-response works. You try everything, and all you need is one solution.
"The problem with too much transparency when you're in the middle of a situation like that is you know there are going to be failures," he said. "The one lesson everybody learned (from the Gulf spill) is to turn the TV cameras off."
In the Gulf, an underwater camera showed oil gushing out of the well in real time. Media tracked the spread of a slick that took days to reach shore. And photos of sea birds covered in oil drove home the damage.
By contrast, photos of the Total rig initially showed a small flame. That raised concern of an explosion but has since gone out, and now the rig looks fairly normal, at least to layman's eyes.
"As long as they don't make any ridiculous statement, they're going to benefit from the fact that there are no good pictures for this and that the environmental impact is unclear and that the constant glare of the U.S. media is not on this," Grabowski said.
Associated Press writer Robert Barr contributed to this report from London.
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