Good news, everyone: BP didn't ruin the Gulf of Mexico. It says so, right in the pages of Politico magazine, in an article called "No, BP Didn't Ruin the Gulf." It's written by Geoff Morrell, who happens to be the senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs for the oil giant -- so we can trust he knows what he's talking about.
The claim that all is well -- packaged this time around as a story about "How the Gulf Coast recovery defied expectations" -- is actually old hat for BP, which has been assuring us of more or less the same thing since long before it had any real evidence to back up that claim. And this latest attempt remains a bit premature from a scientific perspective: As Morrell himself acknowledges, the federally conducted Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which will have the definitive word on the spill's environmental and economic impact and set up a game plan for restoration, is not yet complete.
Still, it's true that, even with the 11 deaths caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the wildlife lost in the spill's immediate aftermath, the whole thing could have been a lot worse than, four years later, it's turned out to be. Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, who directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the time of the spill, acknowledged as much in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "But the caution is that we still don’t fully know the true nature, the true extent of the damage," she continued, "which is why it’s so important that the ongoing damage assessment efforts continue.”
From a legal perspective, of course, the article's timing makes a lot of sense: BP is still trying to get back damage payments it says it was never supposed to pay. (It has so far paid out about $4 billion of its $9.2 billion settlement of private damage claims.) And it's still waiting to find out how liable it will be held under the Clean Water Act; the company could be on the line for up to $18 billion in fines, depending on how much oil a federal judge decides was spilled into the Gulf. It's also possible that BP will be held responsible for punitive damages, which, as Fuel Fix explains, could leave even more plaintiffs eligible for payouts.
So with that reminder of just how much money's on the line, let's take a look at BP's account of the Gulf's outstanding recovery.
It's fortunate, Morrell writes, that the spill occurred in deep water, 5,000 feet below the surface and 40 miles from shore, meaning most of the oil never made it to shore. The deep-water ecosystems, he fails to mention, didn't get off so easily. A team of Penn State researchers have been documenting the effect that the spill had on corals, an important indicator of deep-sea health. In the spill's immediate aftermath, they found "widespread signs of stress," which, they wrote, "underscore the unprecedented nature of the spill in terms of its magnitude, release at depth and impact to deep-water ecosystems.”
In a follow-up study, they doubled down on those conclusions: Not only did the BP spill harm coral communities; they actually found that damage was "deeper and wider" than previously believed.
In Morrell's view, everything to ever have gone wrong in the Gulf is automatically blamed on BP -- a claim that, as he tells it, certainly sounds unfair. The example he gives is the suggestion that the spill caused the decline of the Gulf's oyster harvest: That can't be true, he explains, because government sampling has failed to uncover any visibly oiled oyster beds. Instead, he blames a combination of natural factors and "Louisiana’s misguided decision" to divert freshwater into the Gulf in the spill's aftermath. That decision, of course, was made in their desperation to prevent the oil from reaching sensitive estuaries upstream. The tactic worked, and instead of throwing those officials under the bus for the unfortunate consequences of that decision, BP might want to be grateful it avoided even more damage to wildlife and habitats.
BP is also in the habit of accusing reporters and advocacy groups of cherry-picking the evidence, and this latest defense is no exception. But Morrell is guilty of doing some cherry-picking himself. His version of events makes no mention of the 14 species, from dolphins to tuna, listed by the National Wildlife Foundation as continuing to suffer from the spill's impact four years after it occurred. The NWF contends that it could be years before we understand just how great the impact on wildlife was; one preliminary study found that the total number of birds killed could have been as high as 800,000. BP's strategy has been to dispute most of those studies and reports as inconclusive or politically motivated, and then ignore them entirely in its retelling of the story.
It's undeniably a good thing that the Gulf of Mexico has proven to be resilient, and it's undeniable that BP, in the billions it's shelled out, has helped contribute to the region's recovery. It's even worth reminding ourselves that the media has a tendency to get overexcited about the potentially disastrous effects of something like this: "CNN reported that 'there will be tar balls all the way up the East Coast, all the way to Europe,'" Morrell recalls, while "CBS News predicted 'a permanent end' to the Gulf’s seafood industry," neither of which played out.
But arguing that things aren't as bad as the media and what Morrell calls "opportunistic advocacy groups" originally made them out to be only goes so far as a defense. After all, just being able to say that the Gulf is "bouncing back remarkably well," as environmental chemist Ed Overton pointed out to the Times-Picayune, necessitates comparing its recovery to the “utter carnage, oil everywhere, horrible mess” that faced the region in the immediate aftermath of the oil spill -- a disaster, as U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled last month, resulted from "gross negligence" and "willful misconduct" on the part of BP. The company's been failing to "do the right thing" since before the spill even erupted -- and its latest attempt at setting the record straight is just another example of that.