BP’s Real Cleanup Goal: Protect Image, Profits

As oil begins to lap up on the shores of a Louisiana wildlife refuge, BP is taking bold action … to limit its PR and fiscal liability.

This is on top of news that the U.S. Mineral Management Service gave rubber-stamp approval to BP’s drilling operation because, according to BP, it posed “minimal or nonexistent” threats to the environment — about a year before the drilling platform exploded, caught on fire, and sank — which begs the question: Does BP care about the planet at all?

To be fair, I should report that a “four-story containment vessel” arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday and BP hopes to use the containment dome to “begin the process” of stopping the gushing oil well on Monday, though it could actually take several more days to get it in place. It turns out that such an operation has never before been attempted at such a depth, so the company expects complications. The wellhead causing all the problems is 5,000 feet underwater, a depth heretofore unreachable by offshore drilling platforms, but the Deepwater Horizon was supposedly a “miracle of modern technology” that could not only reach that depth, but do so with virtually no chance of catastrophic failure. Riiight.

As hard as the company would like to appear to be working to contain this disastrous oil spill, however, it’s spending at least equal energy trying to limit the damage to its public image. And in some ways, the nature of the oil spill is cooperating: Because the spill is emanating from 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf, the water temperature is about 1 degree Centigrade, whereas the oil is still hot from having been inside the Earth. This allows the oil to “thoroughly mix with water” before it reaches the surface, according to marine conservation expert Rick Steiner, who has extensive experience working on oil spills like this and has joined a crew of my colleagues from Greenpeace on the ground in the Gulf region. Steiner says that the fact that the oil is mixing with water is preventing the type of “gruesome slick” that has given so many Big Oil PR flacks nightmares over the industry’s long, sordid history.

But have no doubt, BP is not relying solely on the laws of physics to hide the extent of the damage to local ecosystems. The dispersant BP is using at the wellhead, for instance, is called “Corexit,” but Steiner prefers to call it “Hidez-it” because “the real reason it is used is to keep the damage out of sight.” What’s worse is that while oil is toxic to wildlife, and the dispersant is toxic to wildlife, the combination of the two is even deadlier. But the use of such dispersants saves BP money on hiring fishing vessels to help skim oil off the water, so apparently a little extra toxicity floating around the Gulf is an acceptable trade-off for the company.

Those fisherman who are lucky enough (I say with tongue firmly in cheek) to get hired by BP to help with the cleanup — since the oil spill has decimated their trade for at least the next couple decades — are reportedly being forced by BP to sign gag orders and not talk to the media about what they’ve seen. According to Steiner, this is one of many tactics BP has taken straight out of the Exxon Valdez playbook.

BP is also trying to limit its liability by offering coastal Missisippi residents $5,000 to sign documents waiving their right to seek damages from the company in the future. I wonder, whose livelihood and community is worth just $5,000?

Given the particularly callous way in which BP is going about dealing with this environmental disaster, you’d hope that our public officials had at least put them through the wringer — or even performed due diligence — before granting approval for this ill-fated operation. Sadly, that is not the case.

In a press release issued yesterday, the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that the Interior Department exempted BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling plan from environmental review altogether. The plan was “categorically excluded” from the requisite environmental analysis that should have been performed under the National Environmental Policy Act because there was so little chance of it suffering any critical failures thanks to its newfangled technology.

Included in the one-page approval letter the MMS sent to BP is this gem: “14.2.2.1 Essential Fish Habitat – …In the event of an unanticipated blowout resulting in an oil spill, it is unlikely to have an impact based on the industry wide standards for using proven equipment and technology for such responses, implementation of BP’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan which address available equipment and removal of the oil spill.”

Which begs yet another question: BP had a “Regional Oil Spill Response Plan?” Could have fooled me.

Image credit: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

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