A little over 20 years ago at midnight, the infamous Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck the Bligh Reef inside of Prince William Sound dumping more oil than ever before in American waters. A consortium of seven oil companies named Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., headed by none other than BP PLC, was charged with responding to oil spills in Prince William Sound at that time. Despite promising regulators a full-proof Oil Spill Contingency Plan beforehand, the consortium’s response never materialized, forcing Exxon and the local community to take over the containment and cleanup effort. To this day, several of Alaska’s beaches are still stained with an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil, mostly hidden in black, gummy patches just beneath the rocky surface. The Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound was the largest oil spill in the history of the United States until the Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20, 2010 and sank two days later unleashing a virtual geyser of oil on the ocean floor. It has been a nightmarish déjà vu ever since as the American public has witnessed BP bungle one poorly improvised attempt after another while the Obama administration waits in the background with its fingers crossed. The only way such a tragedy could occur is if it was allowed to, and it’s no secret that BP has enjoyed the favor of government regulators for decades now even in the face of several smaller, yet deadly disasters along the way.
Public anger over the extent of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the response by the Federal government and BP reached a pitch following the decision to abandon the “top kill” effort to stop the flow of oil. It is now widely accepted that over 70,000 barrels of oil a day pour into the gulf, a figure more than ten times larger than the original estimate given by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). People are beginning to feel that the Obama administration is caught on its heels at this point and isn’t paying enough attention to a crisis in dire need of leadership and accountability. It seems that the prospect of massive political fallout from the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe has paralyzed a White House already battered and bruised from two wars and a wrecked economy. Obama’s cautious approach may serve him well in many situations, but in this one it looks helpless, and falls well short of inspiring any faith in an already cynical public. There must be a way for the administration to cover itself politically while still taking the reigns and making sure BP doesn’t act solely to protect its own interest, which is exactly what BP has been doing all along. BP is responding to this disaster in a manner consistent with its obligation to BP shareholders, except instead of securing a profit they are desperately holding on to ever-spiraling stock prices. One should expect any company in this situation to behave in more or less the same manner.
One advantageous aspect of BP’s mission in this disaster is that the company’s interests happen to intersect with that of the public’s in a few important areas; both need to stop the leak, and both need to clean up the leaked oil (albeit to a particular degree), but that is about as far as these intersecting interests go. Some in the business community would believe that this is a perfectly suitable scenario; a multi-billion dollar corporation alongside of regular people working towards the same end, but this is not the reality. The gulf spill cleanup is just as much of a PR exercise for BP as it is a cost containment issue. The very same cost cutting that got BP into this mess to begin with is now taking place within the spill response. BP is actively trying to hide a complete picture of the damage in order to lessen its own liability, which is not at all surprising given that it is a corporation and not a public entity. BP’s behavior isn’t evil, it isn’t immoral or even unusual, it’s par for the course, and it’s what corporations do. The gushing hole may as well be spewing money out of the ocean floor as each barrel has legal, economic, social, and environmental costs that could partially or completely fall on BP. Federal law mandates that the cleanup be paid for by the offending company, but the definitions of damage can always be contended ever-so-competently in the courts by the best legal teams money can buy, presumably paid for by BP. Anyone looking to be fully compensated should expect a hell of a fight.
Even so, there is most definitely a price tag on this cleanup that BP will have to pay. The question remains; what is the sum total of all damages resulting, and to what degree will BP be able to minimize its obligation to compensate for these damages? This game of “who’s responsible?” is one of deception in which BP goes to enormous lengths to hide as much damage as possible all the while seeming completely transparent. If the illusion of transparency breaks down and/or hidden damage is uncovered, then the gig is up and he piper must be paid. So far, a month later, BP has shown its cards in many ways.
BP’s original estimate of the flow of oil was 1,000 barrels a day. It wasn’t until the NOAA estimated the flow of oil at 5,000 barrels a day that an independent estimate actually emerged. The flow rate is now thought to be 10 to 12 times higher than 5,000 barrels a day in spite of BP’s reluctance to share critical information with anyone outside of the company. Why is the flow rate important? Isn’t stopping the leak the only thing anyone needs to worry about at this point? Fox News seems to think so. In a May 15 article posted by Fox News titled “Experts Can’t Agree if Size of Oil Spill Matters,” Fox proposes the following analogy; “Many veteran spill experts say trying to figure out how much oil is spewing is like trying to assess the damage of a house fire while firefighters are still trying to put it out. The size will matter later when the damage is tallied.” This analogy would make more sense if disputes were over a few exact figures not too far from one another. Could it be that a spill of 1,000 barrels a day necessitates the same response as that of a spill 70 times larger, or does one response fit all in the oil industry? Why does BP seem to be so concerned with whether or not the public is aware of the actual size of the flow? The answer to this question has everything to do with money. Under the U.S. Clean Waters Act, BP can be fined up to $4,300 for every barrel of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the current liability cap of $75 million, these fines have no cap at all. The final estimates of oil spilt could make the difference between millions and billions of dollars in fines for BP. From this obscure yet pivotal statute buried within the Clean Waters Act, it is possible to deduce BP’s entire strategy in dealing with this unprecedented disaster, a strategy built around “hiding the body.”
Underestimating the flow of oil is one way of hiding the body which may not work so well when the oil reveals itself on the surface of the water in much greater quantities than expected. Unless of course, there is a way to hide the oil or prevent it from coming to the surface altogether, rendering any accurate estimate of oil spilt impossible. Luckily for BP, they own a company named Nalco that produces mass quantities of a chemical dispersant named Corexit, which, when mixed with oil, prevents coagulation and causes the oil to break into much smaller droplets. Oil mixed with dispersant becomes much heavier and tends to sink in water, thereby removing most of the visible evidence of an oil spill by painting it on the ocean floor. Chemical dispersant can also be injected at the well head where the oil is pouring out of the ground, effectively preventing the escaped oil from ever reaching the surface. According to the New York Times, so far, BP has managed to dump 870,000 gallons of Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy so far has worked. The only problem lies in the widespread observations of massive “oil plumes” floating beneath the ocean’s surface, some the size of a small island. These horrific plumes lurk in the water column sucking up oxygen while leaving trails of toxic death in their wake, and basically nothing can be done about them. According to the Associated Press, when confronted about the existence of giant oil plumes beneath the ocean’s surface, BP CEO Tony Hayward replied “There aren’t any plumes.”
It can be argued that using chemical dispersant to break up an oil spill is the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being a gulf coast covered in oil. By dispersing the oil along the ocean floor we shift the bulk of the cleanup work to Mother Nature, who, over an unspecified time frame, re-absorbs the oil naturally. The true unspoken benefit of allowing Mother Nature to handle this catastrophe is the fact that the damage becomes more invisible, and hence less measurable. Out of sight, out of mind. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the use of chemical dispersants to sink the oil is necessary and better for the environment than a spill allowed to strike land. What will be some of the more measurable drawbacks of this process?
First and foremost, Corexit chemical dispersant is a toxic chemical capable of causing severe health effects to any organism unlucky enough to be over exposed to it. Corexit’s chemical formula was until recently protected under trade secret laws, but has been publicly released by Nalco following intense pressure. The Material Safety Data Sheet for Corexit can be seen here. It should be noted that this very same chemical dispersant that is currently being sprayed and injected into the Gulf of Mexico in massive quantities happens to be banned in Britain, BP’s homeland.
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, is outraged by BP’s use of chemical dispersants. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Guidry blames BP for the hospitalization of several cleanup workers after experiencing weakness, dizziness, headaches, nasal irritation and other symptoms typical of exposure to Corexit and other harmful chemicals. The specific causes of these symptoms are largely up for debate, but many believe it could be either toxic fume inhalation from the oil being cleaned or over-exposure to concentrated amounts of chemical dispersant, or a mixture of both. Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, prefers to believe in none of the above. He attributes these symptoms to food poisoning. While being interviewed on CNN about the ill-stricken cleanup workers, Hayward proposed the following scenario:
“I’m sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it had anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning, or some other reason for them being ill. You know, there’s a– food poisoning is a really big issue when you’ve got a concentration of this many people in ten pre-cabs, ten pre-accommodations. It’s something we have to be very, very mindful of. It’s one of the big issues of keeping the army operating. Armies march on their stomachs.”
At first glance, this statement is dumbfounding. What could motivate a presumably intelligent man to issue such a disingenuous statement on national television? Much like the giant oil plumes floating beneath the surface of the ocean, the incidence of chemically exposed workers is packed with meaning for the future liabilities of BP.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration along with the National Institute for Environmental Health have released several fact sheets providing guidelines for cleanup workers handling oil spills including the use of proper personal protective equipment such as boots, gloves, overalls, life vests, and in some cases respirators. In addition to OSHA and NIEH advisories, most of the cleanup workers attend training classes before they begin working for BP on shore or in the Gulf of Mexico. BP employs many of the newly unemployed fisherman and other effected gulf coast residents as cleanup workers for quite a handsome fee. What they haven’t provided so much of is proper safety equipment for these workers. According to George Jackson, a newly unemployed fisherman, BP officials assured the cleanup workers that no harm can come from handling the oil directly, and therefore protective gloves wouldn’t be needed. In direct contradiction, The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Hospitals clearly states that cleanup workers "should avoid skin contact, and oral cavity or nasal passage exposure to oil spill products [by] using appropriate clothing, respiratory protection, gloves and boots." BP’s disregard for safety and the law is unmistakable given the case of George Jackson and the instances of illness in several cleanup workers, some of which were so severe that hospitalization was necessary. But the multi-billion-dollar oil company’s discretions don’t end there; they actually get a bit worse.
On top of failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment such as gloves and respirators, BP has reportedly threatened to fire cleanup workers who’ve attempted to bring their own respirators to the cleanup. One first hand account of such an incident comes from the abovementioned Clint Guidry. Guidry claims that he attempted to provide respirators for some of the workers at the cleanup site, many of which he had worked with before. But, when he handed them out, he says “the BP representatives on site told them that it wasn’t a dangerous situation, and they didn’t need to wear them, and if they did, they would be taken off the job.” Once again, BP is actively distorting reality in order to limit its own liability. One possible explanation for this behavior is that once BP acknowledges that the cleanup operation involves certain risks to human health then the company becomes responsible for any resulting damages, in this case sickness or death. Another possible angle in BP’s behavior involves the Respiratory Protection Standards in OSHA which require companies to have a respiratory program, or plan, in place for workplaces where inhalation risks are present. If BP provides respirators to its cleanup workers while not having the OSHA-mandated respiratory plan, then BP is in violation of OSHA law, which suggests that BP has no plan. Unfortunately, BP may not be the only one without a plan.
While BP has been struggling to look busy fixing this mess (I stress the word look), the Obama administration has unleashed its own PR offensive, presumably to compensate for a perceived lack of involvement. Since it is now painfully clear that BP is in no way prepared, equipped, or capable of handling this situation, the Obama administration can no longer count on their previous strategy of leaving it to the experts, which was in itself a grave miscalculation. The best place to see the administration’s new approach to the BP spill is the Sunday morning talk shows, where officials have a free platform to hypnotize the public with fuzzy platitudes and tough talk. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Carol Browner, Obama’s climate change and energy policy advisor made the following ridiculous statements; “We are prepared for the worst” and “we’ve been prepared from the beginning.” Really? Were you “prepared” when you handed out regulatory exemptions to one of the world’s most prolific polluters? Or were you “prepared” when, three weeks before the disaster, Obama told the American public that there was nothing to fear from offshore drilling since a disastrous spill is virtually impossible? The administration is many things, but it isn’t prepared. Browner goes on to say that “it’s important to understand that from the beginning the government has been in charge.” Self conscious and compensatory statements such as these only affirm that the administration has come to grips with the fact that their reluctance to seize control of the situation has backfired awfully. In a continuing display of theatrical leadership, Brown asserts that “we have been directing BP to take important steps, including the drilling of a second relief well.” I seriously doubt it was the administration’s initiative as much as it was a de facto approval of BP’s decision to do so anyway. This is the administration’s way of pounding out a message that it desperately needs the public to embrace. Officials believe that repeating something ad nauseum with supreme conviction will cause it to become fact and, lucky for the administration, this usually works in America. In the end, BP and the administration have one very important piece of common ground; they’re both cleaning up an historical PR disaster while the rest of us are dealing with a real one.
I referenced the following articles without citation: