It’s a gas, though not of the greenhouse variety. It wafts up into the atmosphere in the form of plain, old hot air. And after last week’s revelations about that other BP spill — the one you hadn’t heard about — we can rest assured that there’s no shortage of it.

Ah, if only chutzpah (Yiddish for "audacity") could be used to solve our energy crisis.

BP surely would be the top supplier. The British oil giant offered hints over the years of its vast reserves by marketing itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” At the very same time, it was presiding over some of the worst U.S. industrial accidents of the current century.

All that took place before Deepwater Horizon, and before BP CEO Tony Hayward’s professed concern for the Gulf and its people, along with his concern for getting his own “life back.” The yacht race Hayward attended in the heat of the crisis — now that was chutzpah.

Chutzpah’s a bit like humor, though. It only works if you continually surprise people. The true chutzpah champion pushes beyond the point where ordinary folks expect him to have the chutzpah to venture.

That’s why we all should stand in awe of BP yet again. Even as oil spewed into the Gulf, the company exercised its communications prowess by buying up every web, print and TV ad big enough for two green letters and a smiling face. The soapbox was used to try to convince us how much the company was doing to “make this right.”

Between the spill’s start and the end of July, BP officials acknowledged last week to a Florida congresswoman, they spent $93 million on advertising.

BP’s communications budget apparently didn’t extend to a small industrial town in Texas, however.

For a month or two this spring, people who lived near BP’s famously decrepit refinery in Texas City, which is near Houston, had been trying to figure out why they were getting sick. Now, they may have an answer. It turns out that for 40 days in April and May the BP refinery was operating even though pollution control equipment was broken. At least, 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air surrounding the plant.

But BP’s crack communications team had other stories to tell — about the good times fishermen and BP employees had cleaning up the Gulf together, about the opportunity restaurant owners have found feeding cleanup workers, about the miracles of rinsing a seagull and seeing it fly off into the wilderness.

Why muddle that message by warning the people of Texas City that their children were breathing in benzene, carbon monoxide and other chemicals that could cause cancer and respiratory problems?

“Officials in Texas City said they were not informed of the scale of the release until it was over,” the New York Times reported last week. “BP said it met the requirements of state law by informing state officials of the release in writing on April 7, then filing a final report on June 4, after the equipment was fixed.”

Doing the minimum when people’s health is at stake. Chutzpah.

As breathtaking as BP’s performance has been, the company does face some competition in the chutzpah field. Take the big oil companies that are arguing loudly that a moratorium on deepwater drilling is terribly unfair to them — even though they shared the same cut-and-paste disaster response plans that served BP so well when the Deepwater Horizon rig went down. That takes chutzpah.

Then, there’s Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose been playing the role of hopping-mad, bayou-protecting governor ever since the oil spill started — even though he’s slashed the state’s ability to respond to oil spills and has done the deregulatory bidding of the oil industry for his entire political career. Chutzpah.

Or take BP’s nemesis in the Texas City case. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has spent much of his career as an outspoken ally of oil industry polluters. He’s sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — twice — in attempt to prevent it from imposing regulations to protect us all from greenhouse gases.

Suddenly, though, Abbott’s become a crusader for the health and safety of the good people of Texas — at least as far as BP is concerned. Now, he’s suing the oil giant over the refinery release. He’s getting national attention for taking on that nasty ol’ British company. He’s talking tough.

Come to think of it, Abbott’s crusade against BP really doesn’t take that much chutzpah. The company has managed to make itself so reviled that politicians of any stripe could only show their chutzpah by standing with BP rather than against it. And when a company manages to become that unpopular — well, you’ve got to tip your hat to them, because that, my friend, takes true chutzpah.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Planet Pundit column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at

Planet Pundit: The audacity of dopes
It took some gumption to keep quiet about a giant toxic release at a Texas refinery while spending tens of millions on PR about the oil spill.