The List

The BP Oil Spill Winners

Beach crews aren't the only people cleaning up after the Deepwater disaster.

CANADIANS

Are you a politically stable country with untapped oil reserves that won't soon be trapped behind a daunting web of post-spill moratoriums and regulations? If so, the world's energy companies would like to have a word with you. Expect newfound interest in Australia's offshore oil reserves, for instance.

But the big winner here is Canada, whose oil reserves, mainly in the form of Alberta's gargantuan oil sand deposits, are the second largest in the world behind Saudi Arabia's. Extracting crude from oil sands -- a process that combines the kid-glove delicacy of oil drilling with the subtle artistry of strip-mining -- is the most pollution-intensive and expensive way to get oil out of the ground, a grueling endeavor that levels forests and leaves toxic runoff in its wake. But Canada's oil sands are anticipated to become the largest source of U.S. oil imports this year anyway -- and since the BP spill, Canadian boosters have been busy talking up Alberta oil as a safer, cleaner alternative to offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. On a diplomatic visit to Washington in May, Jim Prentice, the Canadian environmental minister, claimed that the hazards of oil-sands production were "probably less than the kind of risks associated with offshore drilling."

 

Plenty of people have thrown cold water on this notion -- environmentally minded investment groups and oilfield service company executives have both pointed out that oil sands will hardly be immune to the newly skittish regulatory and investment climate surrounding post-BP oil drilling, and Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has made political hay of opposing the expansion of Canada's oil-shipment infrastructure since the BP spill.

But it's more likely that oil-sands operators will benefit from the newfound apocalypticism in the world's view of petroleum: the understanding that for even the safest-seeming sources of oil, all bets are off. "After enduring years of criticism for safety and environmental risks, the oil sands players are deriving quiet solace from the [BP] spill, as observers realize the challenges inherent in developing new oil sources whether on or offshore," Citigroup Capital Markets analyst Robert Morris told Canada's Financial Post this week.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

YESTERDAY'S FOSSIL-FUEL VILLAINS

Before April 20, if you had asked anyone in the United States what words they associated with "oil spill," chances are he or she would've quickly offered up the name of the most infamous shipwreck since the Titanic. But that was then. BP executives have replaced Exxon's in the Capitol Hill perp walks, and in the popular imagination an ominously billowing underwater aperture has supplanted the great black hulk lodged on Bligh Reef. As FP's Steve LeVine notes, while Exxon Mobil shares have slipped along with the rest of Big Oil's -- albeit just 9 percent since the beginning of the spill, versus BP's cataclysmic 51 percent fall -- the disaster in the gulf has allowed the company to retreat into the shadow of its competitor's newfound notoriety and focus attention on its post-1989 record as a comparably responsible drilling-rig operator.

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is probably breathing a bit easier, too. After an April 6 explosion at one of his company's West Virginia coal mines killed 25 miners -- the worst such accident since 1984 -- Blankenship's name and that of his company were synonymous with the grim wages of fossil-fuel dependency. (Blankenship's Dickensian public image didn't help.) The CEO's troubles are hardly over, as Massey is currently the subject of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, but at least the TV cameras are off Blankenship's lawn. He might think about sending a case of champagne over to Tony Hayward's yacht club.

CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images

REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS

Three months ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's most memorable appearance on the national political stage was his turn delivering the Republican Party's official rebuttal to President Obama's 2009 State of the Union address -- a performance dour and uncharismatic enough to all but kill speculation that he was the GOP's Next Big Thing. Since the spill, however, Jindal has transformed himself into a gubernatorial action hero, placing himself at the center of mitigation efforts on his state's tar-stained beaches and logging more helicopter-borne photo ops than anyone since Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. His approval ratings at home have jumped to 86 percent -- the highest of any governor in the country -- according to Public Policy Polling, restoring his cachet within a party badly in need of presidential-grade politicians.

More bizarrely, the spill has also lifted the profile of Haley Barbour, the longtime Washington lobbyist turned Republican governor of neighboring Mississippi and long-shot 2012 presidential hopeful, who has commanded headlines by insisting that the BP spill isn't actually that big of a deal. Barbour has variously pooh-poohed comparisons to the Exxon Valdez spill, blasted the "liberal elites [who] were hoping this would be the Three Mile Island of offshore drilling," and urged tourists not to let the spill keep them away from Mississippi's beaches. His sunny view of the crisis has not exactly convinced the American public -- respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this month overwhelmingly believe the spill is a disaster, and fault BP's and the Obama administration's handling of it -- but it has gained traction with conservative activists trying to somehow capitalize on post-spill discontent with the Democrat-run federal response while also opposing further restrictions on oil drilling.

Pete Souza/Official White House via Getty Images

LAWYERS AND DEMOCRATIC LOBBYISTS

In the wake of an oil spill, the only footwear thicker on the ground than gumboots and hip waders is white shoes. A catastrophe like BP's is a bonanza for lawyers -- there are class action suits to file and fend off, politicians to be sweet-talked, and images to burnish. Exxon's legal bills for the Exxon Valdez spill eventually totaled $1 billion; BP's tab -- for a spill that is now larger than Exxon's, stretches across four states, and has prompted no less than seven congressional inquiries to date -- is sure to dwarf that sum.

The three companies involved in the spill -- BP, Halliburton, and Transocean -- have already retained three of the most powerful (and expensive) law firms in the United States -- Wilmer Hale, Patton Boggs, and Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom -- for the big-ticket work, plus half a dozen smaller firms to handle more localized complaints and a phalanx of top-shelf lobbying and public relations shops in Washington. And while the spill has been a political headache for Washington's Democratic leadership, it's been a payday for well-connected Democrats out of office: the BP and friends team now includes Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta, former 9/11 commission member and Bill Clinton-era Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick, and former Democratic Rep. Bill Brewster, according to the Washington Post. (A few high-ranking Republican staffers turned lobbyists are on the payroll too.)
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS

Like aid organizations after earthquakes and gun shops during Democratic presidencies, environmental groups tend to see their coffers and membership rolls grow following high-profile ecological catastrophes. Indeed, a quick perusal of the most prominent groups' websites turns up a welter of oil-spill-related appeals.

But what the oil spill giveth, time taketh away. Consider the experience of Greenpeace: In the mid-1980s, the global environmental organization, best known for daring at-sea protests of nuclear tests and whaling ships, was hovering on the fringes of respectability, its American office operating with a fiscal year 1985 budget of just $24 million. Then Chernobyl happened, followed a few years later by the Exxon Valdez spill, launching the issues most closely associated with Greenpeace -- nukes and oceans -- to the top of the nightly newscast. By 1990, the budget of its American branch, Greenpeace USA, had exploded, to $63.7 million. (The French government's rather unwise decision to blow up a Greenpeace ship in New Zealand, killing two of its crewmembers, contributed as well, garnering the group an $8 million settlement and much international sympathy.) But as the urgency of the public's interest in the issues faded, the group's budget shrunk again, back to $38 million by 1995.

According to Northeastern University public policy professor Christopher Bosso, author of Environment, Inc., this sort of spending binge is the exception rather than the rule -- most environmental organizations know their post-catastrophe windfall will be short lived, and plan accordingly. The biggest long-term gains, he says, come when groups can turn a disaster into a "focusing event," harnessing the public's short-term horror to shift the paradigm of public policy. The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdowns, for instance, precipitated a quarter-century rejection of nuclear power by all but a handful of countries, such as France and Japan. Haley Barbour was right about that much, at least.

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The List

Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical (Updated)

A tour of dictators' cribs.

Updated on Jan. 14, 2011, following the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

BEN ALI FAMILY

Country: Tunisia

Lifestyle: There are a number of factors that led to the week of street protests and riots that overwhelmed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime in January 2011, including widespread unemployment, rising food prices, and restrictions on civil liberties. But one major source of Tunisians' widespread rage was the conspicuous consumption of Ben Ali's extended family, particularly the relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi. "No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget" was a popular chant among the hundreds of mostly young men who took to the streets of the coastal resort of Hammamet -- where the Trabelsis have built a number of opulent beachfront estates -- as they ransacked mansions, burned all-terrain vehicles, and even liberated a horse from its stable.

The opulent lifestyles of Ben Ali's relatives were laid bare in a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, particularly one describing a dinner at the home of his son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr el-Materi. Materi's Hammamet mansion featured, among other luxuries, "an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters." Roman artifacts, which the host insisted were real, abounded, including a "lion's head from which water pours into the pool." The ambassador and his wife were fed a massive dinner, including more than a dozen dishes and frozen yogurt flown in by plane from Saint-Tropez.

Materi also owned a pet tiger, which he kept in a cage on his compound and consumed four chickens a day. All in all, the situation reminded U.S. Amb. Robert Codec, who had served as an advisor to the transitional government in Iraq and signed the cable, of Uday Hussein's opulent lifestyle.

Not content with buying their own luxuries, Ben Ali's relatives had also taken to appropriating them from others. Another leaked State Department cable describes a 2006 incident in which Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews through his wife, reportedly stole a $3 million yacht belonging to a prominent French businessman from a dock in Corsica. The yacht reappeared a short time later in a Tunisian port having been repainted to cover its distinguishing characteristics. The French weren't fooled, however, and the yacht was returned to defuse a potential diplomatic uproar. Despite an Interpol warrant being issued for their arrest, the two were never punished.

KIM JONG IL

Country: North Korea

Lifestyle: Reliable information about North Korea is hard to come by, but the Dear Leader is thought to have two residences in Pyongyang as well as 10 country chalets throughout North Korea -- and there are probably more if you include the country estates that belonged to his late father, Kim Il Sung. Many of these are reportedly connected to each other by private underground rail lines.

One of Kim's largest homes is a seven-story tower on the beach in South Hamgyong province, said to feature separate floors for Kim's family members and a unique underwater viewing room, three stories beneath the ocean's surface.

At another one of his estates, Kim is thought to enjoy body-boarding in an indoor wave pool, accompanied at all times by a young female doctor and nurse. (Whether these two actually have any medical training was a subject of some speculation from the rest of Kim's entourage, according to a former bodyguard.

At Kim's Pyongyang residences, he's known for throwing lavish, all-night drinking parties for his top officials, usually including a bevy of scantily clad young women. Just how trashed do North Korea's best and brightest get at these events? According to the Hennessy company, the hard-partying leader ordered more than half a million dollars worth of cognac during the 1990s.

ROBERT MUGABE

Country: Zimbabwe

Lifestyle: Rampant inflation and an unemployment rate that has reached into the 90s haven't stopped 86-year-old President Robert Mugabe from living out his golden years in style. In 2008, Mugabe completed work on a new $26 million, 25-bath estate in a wealthy suburb of Harare, the country's capital. Millions more were spent decorating the place, including hiring a team of Middle Eastern artists who worked for a year to design the building's ceilings. It also comes with the latest in home-security technology -- a battery of anti-aircraft missiles donated by China. The project was all the more preposterous because Mugabe's "official" salary as president is only about $57,000 per year. When asked by a British reporter about the house, Mugabe simply replied, "It is lavish because it's attractive."

It was the third mansion built by Mugabe and the fifth he has owned since becoming president. In the late 1990s, his wife Grace caused an uproar when she used government funds meant to build low-cost housing for the poor to build herself a 30-room estate. "Graceland," as it became known, was later bought by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Apparently not satisfied with their spreads in Zimbabwe -- or perhaps preparing in case they need to make a quick getaway -- the Mugabes also spent nearly $6 million on a home in Hong Kong (above right), it was reported in 2009.

THE OBIANG FAMILY

Country: Equatorial Guinea

Lifestyle: This West African country has been described as a "parody of an oil kleptocracy," and that's certainly true of the jet-setting life of its ruling family.. In addition to the presidential palace in the capital city of Malabo, President Teodoro Obiang has a summer place in Cape Town, South Africa as well as two mansions in Potomac, Maryland. He purchased the first for a cool $2.6 million  in cash in 1999, and it reportedly includes 10 bathrooms, seven fireplaces, and an indoor pool. U.S.-based Riggs Bank financed his purchase of the second Maryland home for $1.15 million the next year, which became the subject of a investigation by the U.S. Congress. Obiang can travel in style between his properties on any his six private planes, one of which reportedly features a king-size bed and a bathroom with gold-plated taps.

Obiang's oldest son, nicknamed Teodorin, appears to be a chip off the old block, buying himself a fleet of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, properties in Spain and the Canary Islands, a California-based hip-hop label, and a $35 million Malibu mansion on the same street as Mel Gibson and Britney Spears. Not too shabby for a "minister of forestry" making an official salary of about $40,000.

ALI BEN BONGO

Country: Gabon

Lifestyle: Ali Ben Bongo's father and predecessor, Omar Bongo, set a high standard for deluxe living, acquiring at least 45 homes in France, including a $27 million villa, a $1.5 million Bugatti sports car, and a dozen other cars over the course of his four decades in power. Members of the Bongo family have become famous for chartering 747s for their Paris shopping sprees.

After taking power in disputed election in 2009, Ali continued the family's interest in French real estate, shelling out a reported $120 million for an 18th-century mansion in the center of Paris. Located around the corner from the Musée d'Orsay in one of the city's toniest neighborhoods, the property boasts 4,500 square meters of living space stacked on top of 3,700 square meters of land.

Ali's Californian wife, Inge, also got in on the act for a while, appearing on the VH1 reality show Really Rich Real Estate, on which she was filmed putting down a $25 million bid for a mansion in Malibu. She also rented a $25,000-a-month home from rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs but later sued him for landlord neglect. The couple became estranged around five years ago, and Inge now claims to be living on food stamps in the United States.

THAN SHWE

Country: Burma

Lifestyle: In 2005, Burma's notoriously secretive and superstitious military leaders moved their base of operations from the traditional capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to the unfinished outpost of Naypyidaw. The move was the result of security concerns, superstition (the site was reportedly picked on the advice of astrologers), and likely the junta's top brass's desire to live in luxury away from the former capital city's impoverished masses. Around $2 million was spent on each of the 50 top generals' houses and presumably millions more on the remote 100-room mansion occupied by Than Shwe, the junta's leader.

Than Shwe is obsessive about secrecy, but some details have begun to emerge of the dictator's lavish lifestyle. There are the frequent shopping trips to Singapore made by the first family (which senior general accompany Shwe on these trips are taken by many Burma watchers as a sign of who's on the way up in the regime). Than Shwe's 16-year-old grandson is reportedly a member of the Singapore Lamborghini Club. And the junta was embarrassed in 2006 when a 10-minute video was released showing the lavish wedding of Than Shwe's daughter (above left), Thandar Shwe, including a now-notorious shot of what appear to be diamonds woven into the bride's hair. The gifts at the party reportedly included cars and houses worth around $50 million.

CLOTILDE GOURLET/AFP/Getty Images; KNS/AFP/Getty Images; MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images; PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images; LUDOVIC REA/AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images