BP's absurd propaganda campaign: How it keeps trying to whitewash the Deepwater Horizon

Five years after the catastrophic spill, the company is still trying to downplay the damage

Published March 18, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

         (Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard)
(Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard)

The Gulf of Mexico is rebounding from the 2010 BP oil spill, BP is pleased to announce.

“The science is showing that most of the environmental impact occurred immediately after the accident -- during the spring and summer 2010 -- in areas near the wellhead and along oiled beaches and marshes,” the company concluded in a report released Monday. “Areas that were affected are recovering, and data BP has collected and analyzed to date do not indicate a significant long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species.”

However, some observers are questioning BP's optimism — surprise, surprise — particularly government officials and environmental groups who are calling the report "inappropriate," "premature" and "pretty outrageous."

"Citing scientific studies conducted by experts from around the Gulf, as well as this council, BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn't support its claims and attempts to obscure our role as caretakers of the critical resources damaged by the spill," the council of federal and state Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which is in the process of evaluating the spill's impact, said in a statement.

And Kyle Graham, who chairs the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, told the New Orleans Advocate the following: “We think it’s grossly premature to cherry-pick the science when the science assessment hasn’t even been completed yet.”

But inappropriate as it is, Graham added, "It shouldn’t be a huge surprise. This has been, more or less, BP’s tack over the last couple years."

He's not kidding. Jumping the gun in its eagerness to declare the whole Gulf fiasco over and done with is something BP's been doing practically since the spill first occurred, and long before oil even stopped gushing from the damaged Macondo well. Each time, the company's drawn the public's ire for emphasizing the positive while ignoring the lingering, serious damage caused by the 3.19 million barrels of oil a judge found it spilled in the Gulf -- the result, as the courts determined last fall, of "gross negligence" on the part of the company.

And each time, watchdogs caution that it's too soon to declare victory. As the Ocean Conservancy's Kara Lankford put it in response to a recent BP spin-job: “Scientists overwhelmingly agree that we need to monitor and research impacts for the long term, not just a few years, before we draw conclusions about what has or has not recovered.”

To give you a better idea of BP's public relations strategy, here are five of the company's more gallingly optimistic statements in the weeks and years following the spill:

May 2010

BP's perspective: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," BP chief executive Tony Hayward told reporters. He added, in another interview, "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest."

Meanwhile, in the Gulf:

  • Oil began washing ashore off the Louisiana coast. Several days later, it hit the mainland.
  • Scientists discovered the existence of a giant underwater oil plume, 6 miles wide and extending 32,000 feet deep.
  • Federal officials revised their estimate for the disaster's size upwards -- the first indication that it's the largest spill in U.S. history.
  • Near the month's end, BP declared that its latest attempt to staunch the still-flowing oil, a technique known as "top kill," had failed.

July 2011

BP's perspective: "Multiple lines of evidence demonstrate that, to the extent that portions of the Gulf economy were impacted by the spill, recovery had occurred by the end of 2010, and that positive economic performance continues into 2011, with 2011 economic metrics exceeding pre-spill performance." -- BP in a court filing

Meanwhile, in the Gulf:

  • About 491 miles of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coastline remained contaminated with oil, according to NOAA.
  • The National Institutes of Health launched a massive, five-year study evaluating the long-term impacts of the disaster on physical and mental health, with a focus on "vulnerable populations, especially pregnant women, children, fishermen, immigrants, and minorities."

January 2012

BP's perspective"I'm glad to report that all beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy! And the economy is showing progress, with many areas on the Gulf Coast having their best tourism season in years." -- BP representative Iris Cross in a television ad

Meanwhile, in the Gulf:

  • The Press-Register reported that BP crews collected more than three tons of tarballs and tar mats from Alabama and Missippi beaches during the first ten days of the month: "Nearly two years after the BP spill, the company maintains a significant presence along the Alabama and Mississippi coastline, with dozens of workers patrolling the Gulf shoreline each week."
  • A government-funded study found that most of the spilled gas and oil never reached the Gulf's surface. "The visible surface slick that people were riveted by during the months of the spill was really only 15 percent of the total mass," NOAA research chemist and study author Thomas Ryerso told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
  • The Press-Register also reported on the dire situation for schoolchildren in south Mobile County impacted by the "trifecta" of Hurricane Katrina, the economic recession and the spill. "A number of children and teens whose parents lost their jobs are living in houses with no electricity or running water, so they’re coming to class in dirty uniforms," counselors told reporters. "Some are washing their clothes and taking showers at school, hoping their classmates don’t notice."

April 2014

BP's perspective: “The large-scale cleanup effort, combined with early restoration projects and natural recovery processes, is helping the Gulf return to its baseline condition” -- BP in an April 2014 announcement that it was ending “active cleanup” of the Louisiana shoreline.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf:

  • The National Wildlife Federation released a report identifying 14 species, including dolphins, sea turtles and oysters, still showing symptoms of oil exposure. “Despite what BP would have you believe, the impacts of the disaster are ongoing,” said Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, the NWF’s senior policy specialist for Gulf and coastal restoration.
  • Capt. Thomas Sparks, the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon Response, decried the celebratory nature of BP's announcement. “We are a long, long way from the response being complete, going back to operations as normal, or resuming business as usual," he said.

October 2014

BP's perspective: “No, BP didn’t ruin the Gulf” - Geoff Morrell, senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs for BP, in an editorial for Politico.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf:

  • Geochemists at the University of California-Santa Barbara discovered that between 80,000 to 620,000 barrels of oil are coating the seafloor, scattered in what they described as a "bathtub ring" across an area of 1,235 square miles.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Bp Deepwater Horizon Gulf Of Mexico Gulf Oil Spill