That petrol emotion: BP’s ‘cleanup’ of the Gulf of Mexico

Originally published in Issue 437 of New Internationalist Magazine.

There are two kinds of cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico: the real one and the one that allows us to continue indulging in fossil fuel fantasy. Both are problematic, argues Adam Ma’anit.

In the days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing the pent-up hydrocarbon reservoir of Miocene rage it was tapping, the full impacts of the disaster were largely unknown. Nearly a month on, there were still doubts about the degree of devastation that would ultimately ensue. BP CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, infamously asserted in late May that ‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.’

BP already had an atrocious health and safety record in the US – even by industry standards. The company was still being rapped for continuing violations at its Texas City refinery – the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured over 100. It was facing record fines over leaks and poor maintenance in Alaska where two major spills in 2006 led to widespread concern about the expansion of oil exploration in the fragile Arctic. In 2006, Senior Group Vice President John Mogford said of Texas City: ‘If we’ve learned one thing from this tragedy, it’s the need for humility.’ How the company has operated since, however, reeks of corporate hubris.

Off the deep end
The US was, and still is, a crucial market for the company. BP was therefore keen to demonstrate to the American public and officials that it had learned the lessons of the past. But it was also hoping to win greater market share in the US by expanding its operations in Alaska’s North Slope, as well as its hugely successful deepwater finds in the Gulf of Mexico. The ill-fated Deepwater Horizon had previously drilled BP’s massive Tiber oil field in the Gulf seven months earlier – one of the deepest wells ever drilled and containing an estimated six billion barrels of oil. In 2007, hobbled by its spate of disasters and poor image in the US, newly installed CEO Tony Hayward recanted his predecessor’s much lauded commitment to end the company’s financial support to politicians and parties.

BP’s policy reversal on buying political favours paid off big time. Despite an atrocious safety record, the company was able to secure permits to expand its Arctic operations in the Beaufort Sea and become the largest leaseholder in the Gulf of Mexico, including its infamous Macondo prospect that was being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon when it blew up.

The timing of this disaster was certainly problematic for President Obama, who only a few weeks before the disaster had announced a massive expansion of offshore oil exploration in the US. During the presidential campaign, he was vociferously against drilling, yet after assuming the presidency he made a dramatic u-turn. Obama had been one of the top recipients of BP ‘donations’ in the previous year. On 31 March 2010, the now US President Obama announced that he was opening up 167 million acres of untapped seabed for potential exploration and production. Three weeks later, a deepwater rig exploded.

The other cleanup operation
The US government was quick to respond to concerns about a potential ecological disaster. Just one day after the explosion, US Coast Guard’s Rear Admiral Mary Landry confidently told ABC News: ‘We’ve been able to determine there is nothing emanating from the wellhead.’ A few days later, after it became obvious that oil was in fact gushing out of BP’s deepwater well, the official estimates by the White House, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all echoed BP’s paltry 1,000 barrels a day estimate. This despite experts having access to live video of the leaks as well as data about the reservoir, water temperature and conditions that could have helped them make a far more educated assessment.

As the weeks went by and NASA satellite images revealed an enormous amoeba-like hydrocarbon sludge swelling daily, we were inundated in the media and official sources with technical information of the cleanup operations replete with military language like ‘command centre’ and ‘top kill’, spreading the impression that things were getting done. Meanwhile, actual on-the-ground media coverage was severely restricted. Journalists were refused access to spoiled beaches and marshlands, independent confirmation of official estimates was sorely lacking, and 24-hour news was blinding us with blowout-preventer schematics and animations of coffers and risers.

Now that news of the spill has almost disappeared from the pages of mainstream media, various reports paint a rosy picture of the aftermath

Still, no one can argue BP didn’t get a roasting in the press or by officials. But the way that transpired seemed quite tight to script. US politicians cried on television, some British politicians rallied support for the beleaguered company, Obama strode pensively along oil-soaked sand, images of the BP ‘command centre’ were endemic, Tony Hayward went yachting. The saga provided all flavours of catharsis. Americans got to bash the Brits. The Brits got to snipe about the Yanks. Hayward was a deliciously cretinous villain.

Rose-tinted reportage
Now that news of the spill has almost disappeared from the pages of mainstream media, various reports seem determined to paint a rosy picture of the aftermath. One unattributed Agence France Presse story widely picked up by the major media is characteristic: ‘Gulf focus shifts, but where is all the oil?’ its headline asks. Continuing with the military theme so popular in the reporting of this crisis, it adds: ‘Only weeks ago, the slick was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be prevented from swamping shorelines and slowly choking helpless pelicans, now the oil is an elusive enemy, one that has to be tracked down.’

The chemical dispersants that were used in the cleanup operation (a substance banned for use in the British coastline due to toxicity concerns), combined with the warm waters of the Gulf did indeed do their job and disperse the oil, but by doing so, the oil is now more diffuse and able to be ingested by smaller organisms – the full impacts of which are still poorly understood. Particularly as these organisms will be ingested by others higher up the food chain.

BP used two million gallons of the controversial chemical dispersant Corexit, manufactured by US-based Nalco. The whistleblower support group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) spoke with several toxicologists and scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency – the agency which approved its use – who claim their warnings to superiors were ignored and that decisions were made without consulting the relevant experts. Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, told The Guardian: ‘The concern was that the agency appeared to be flying blind and not consulting its own specialists and even the literature that was available.’ Scientists from Tulane University have found that nearly 80 per cent of blue crab larvae sampled in a stretch of coast from Louisiana to Florida since the spill had disturbing orange blobs stuck inside their shells. One of the team members, Dr Erin Grey, said: ‘This is something that researchers with decades of experience have never seen before, and we think it must be linked to the spill.’

Despite the mounting evidence of possible disastrous ecological impacts on sea life and the sheer volume of toxic hydrocarbons and dispersants released in the waters of the Gulf, some in the media seem to want to move on. A New York Times article in late July declared: ‘The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected, a piece of good news that raises tricky new questions about how fast the government should scale back its response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.’ Although the report goes on to admit that there are still many ‘known unknowns’, as former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might say, its rosy evaluation of the long-term impacts is indicative of the mood that many in the media, the industry and the US administration seem determined to convey. Now that Tony Hayward’s scalp has been triumphantly brandished to the public, there seems less appetite for monitoring the continuing impacts of one of the world’s worst offshore oil spills.

Magic vs. realism
But it is clear that the oil has not magically vanished. Fanciful assertions about disappearing oil are mostly the result of the dextrous deployment of smoke and mirrors – or rather dispersants and PR. And critical evidence required to assess the true impacts of the disaster is still being withheld from public scrutiny. In an open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and BP’s incoming CEO Robert Dudley, scientists have expressed concern about BP’s non-disclosure and confidentiality requirements with regard to releasing scientific data, particularly relating to the use of dispersants. ‘We are greatly concerned with reports that BP is requiring confidentiality agreements in research contracts with scientists, which would preclude them from releasing any of their findings for a three-year period,’ the letter said. ‘Failure to disclose this scientific information in a timely manner hides critically important information from the public – the owners of the natural resources at risk.’

Obama had been one of the top recipients of BP ‘donations’ in the previous year. On 31 March 2010, he announced that he was opening up 167 million acres of untapped seabed for potential exploration and production

To declare the Gulf crisis over, say scientists, is grossly premature and irresponsible. Dr Bruce Stein, Associate Director of the National Wildlife Federation, is highly critical of the notion that the crisis has abated. In a Reuters blog he writes: ‘Previous oil disasters like the Exxon Valdez show the full impact may not be apparent for months or years to come. It wasn’t until four years after the Valdez disaster began that local herring stocks collapsed – and more than two decades later, they haven’t recovered. The bottom line is, it’s irresponsible to draw conclusions about the Gulf oil disaster’s full impacts with so many questions still unanswered.’

When BP chose the code name for its ill-fated deepwater prospect, it probably thought it was being poetic. Macondo is the name of the fictional town in Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez’s much-loved novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. The bitter irony is that, in the novel, Macondo is a small town transformed by the march of ‘progress’ (in the form of a banana plantation) until it is eventually destroyed by nature. The continued push by the fossil fuel industry into new oil ‘frontiers’ – be it deepwater, the Arctic or the tar sands – and bolstered by governments’ pathological obsession with ‘energy security’ at all costs, provides the drumbeat to this march of ‘progress’. We won’t know for certain what the total impacts of this spill will be for some time to come. What we do know is that our continued reliance on this particular banana plantation to deliver human progress is ultimately a work of fiction.

Adam Ma’anit is a campaigner and energy policy analyst at London-based charity Platform.

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