The Gulf is burning while the world fiddles- Photo source US Navy
The Gulf is burning while the world fiddles- Photo source US Navy

GreenWatch: World Fiddles with BP While the Gulf Burns

by / Jul. 9, 2015 11am EST

This is personal.

GreenWatch began in 1996 as collaboration between myself and Paul MacClennan, retired Buffalo News environmental reporter, and the Buffalo Institute of Urban Ecology, Inc. The purpose was to help to organize the local environmental community and to deliver a local Western New York printed newsletter to the offices of elected officials and policy-makers. We did not last long. We could not get continuing funding for the publication. But we did not go away. For almost a decade we worked quietly and diligently to advocate environmental literacy, pubishing articles here and there (thank you, Geoff Kelly), publishing newsletters, working online as that media deveoped, hosting forums and workshops, engaging a variety of people, organizations and media makers.

It was the Gulf oil disaster that stimulated the concentrated relaunch of GreenWatch in April 2010.  At least we could cover our costs utilizing the emerging technology of online postings. We engaged and continued to develop our network of media makers in order to help contextualize what we felt were important and badly covered environmental stories.

It was clear from the national press that was covering the Deepwater Horizon/BP/ Haliburton/Macondo Prospect blowout disaster that no one in any pressroom across the land had any clue as to how to cover the story.

That is because the media at that time had abandoned in-depth environmental coverage across the board and were working on financial strategies that would support the expensive mainstream media tradition.

The business and war climate of the time tried to push environment into an obscure corner designed to be at best an afterthought in the great political morass of the Cheney Bush rampage. The mainstream media, which was then still the dominant think treacle, characterized all environmental issues as PR issues that negatively effected the economy.  Regulations and taxes = evil, growth and profit = the only good. “Consume good citizens—it will help your depression to go away.” That lens allowed main stream media to get away with dosing the citizens with the talking points of BP, Haliburton, and the very confused and subjugated federal, state, and local agencies that had any so-called  responsibility for the disaster.

The Buffalo News had not replaced Paul with an environmental reporter since his retirement almost a decade previous to the Gulf disaster. I was pleased that the Buffalo News was willing to publish several of my stories as Sunday ViewPoints Covers and I deeply thank the editors for that.  But in 2010 it remained the normal at the Buffalo News to assign business reporters to cover environmental issues such as the occasional SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review) challenges raised by concerned citizens.  Reported from a business perspective, SEQRA and the regulations that it represented were treated as “the creation of an unfriendly business climate” rather than trying to protect the health and well-being of the citizens and the ecology that our lives depend upon. The local electronic media was worse. Talking heads read talking points about sewers and bird kills, and fish kills, and smiled. This was the status across the nation in 2010 when the Macondo blowout added to the ongoing destruction the Gulf of Mexico and ruined the lives of millions of people.

From a more cynical point of view, just about every media outlet that was covering this disaster had an agenda to play it down to the point where at first it was treated as an almost irrelevant blip on the “business as usual” screen. It was a maddening time. It remains so. This is arguably the largest environmental disaster in history. Calling it a “spill” is one of the greatest language engineering PR feats of this century. It ranks up there with “Death Tax” and “Entitlements”!  Language counts!

We would like to think that it has gotten better. At least we are still writing.  We believe that the influence of GreenWatch has brought increased scrutiny to media coverage of environmental issues and positive investments locally and nationally in relatively knowledgeable and critical thinking reporters and story development. Our work on national issues including the BP disaster, Colony Collapse Disorder, fracking, sustainability, and our work on local issues including the Buffalo outer harbor and local critical media engagement activities have resulted positively for our community. We thank our supporters and those that have found us as a resource.

A Review of The Deepwater Horizon Blow Out

This particular portion of the Gulf of Mexico disaster began on what we have been told was 20 April 2010. This is when a massive explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig, sank it, killed 11 platform workers, and ruptured the underwater pipes connected to the oil field beneath the Gulf of Mexico. 87 days later, on 15 July 2010, we are told, the gushing oil well was capped. We are told that the leaking was stopped entirely by 19 September. Since then there have been numerous reports that this is not true.

The official government estimate of what escaped from the blown well is 4.9 million gallons, but this is a controversial estimate with most parties disagreeing as to the exact amount of oil that entered into the ocean ecosystem.

Lets get this straight- It was not a spill. It is a disaster. It was shocking, as in “we were just shocked” to see that the catastrophe coverage was almost universally assigned to print business reporters or tv talking heads that read talking points from industry. The media marched behind the rising aggression of the PR of industry. The truth is that this was arguably the greatest single environmental disaster to ever happen on America’s corporate watch. It is a significant contributor climate change which is the greatest failure of the free market.

The cover up of the true magnitude of the disaster is one of the greatest crimes of the century. Never forgive, never forget was a favorite phrase of the original GreenWatcher Paul MacClennan. And we have not.


Late last week an $18.7 billion settlement was announced regarding all federal, state, and local claims against BP for its role in the disaster. BP had a profit of $25.7 billion in 2012 alone.  

According to the agreement which has yet to be accepted by the United States District Court in New Orleans, BP would pay the federal government a civil penalty of $5.5 billion under the Clean Water Act over a 15 year time frame, and would pay $7.1 billion under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to the gulf. The later amount is which is defined as compensation for direct environmental harm caused by the spill.

Many, including those of us at GreenWatch, think that this settlement is not enough. Initially the federal government sought $18.7 billion in just in Clean Water Act fines. 

According to an article published this week in Rolling Stone:

“Mark Lyons, regional administrator for Oxfam America, which has been working for economic equity in the Gulf of Mexico for 20 years, tells Rolling Stone that “BP got off cheaply.” He added, “The judge had already found gross negligence, and based on the Clean Water Act formulas, BP should have been looking at $13 to $18 billion for the oil spill alone. Add to that the natural resource damages and the fact that there is enough research on oil spills in general and the shock to Gulf in particular to say that a settlement at this level is both premature and cheap. It’s a bargain for BP.”

What exactly has been the environmental harm to the Gulf and the surrounding communities?

If you listen to the PR talking points of BP including the ongoing advertising campaign, the answer is not much.

We disagree and we are not alone. The contaminating oil/hydrocarbons which spread for thousands of miles and polluted sensitive shoreline and estuarine communities. These sensitive communities are ecological engines that help to clean water and air, create healthy soils, and promote strong opportunities to keep the gulf vibrant. Vibrancy includes contribution to weather and atmospheric conditions as well as continuing to provide a source of living for the humans that depend upon a clean ecosystem and fishery.  It is easy to make the connection between a dead or dying ecosystem and things like ocean temperatures and currents, climate change, and economic vibrancy and economic justice. 

In March of this year, BP issued a report claiming that the spill didn’t cause a “significant long-term impact” to Gulf wildlife and fisheries and that the massive cleanup was largely successful in limiting the spill’s damage. But government officials and environmentalists dismissed the report for cherry-picking its information. “BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims,” declared the Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees, a group of state and federal agencies charged with evaluating the spill’s impacts.

In 2012 the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) issued a report evaluating the overall ecological damage cased by the blowout, and focusing on restoration scenarios. They estimated that the NRDA costs to restore the Gulf to 2010 conditions would easily reach $31 billion. 

NWF said in that report “We cannot trust the assessments of BP and its allies.” At first BP tried to sell the public on the fact that only 1,000 gallons were leaking per day, when it turned out that they knew that 53,000 plus gallons were leaking. BP also invested significant cash in an ongoing  PR campaign that created the false impression that “the disaster was not so bad and everything was under control.” The talking points generated by this PR campaign were widely reported in the media. By 2013 BP cited the $50 million ad campaign costs as part of their reparation expenses and investments in the clean-up. That may very well have been the best investment by BP, because convincing people, including the judge, that “its better than we know” seems to have significantly decreased the cost of the settlement to BP.

The Corexit fix for the gushed oil was worse than the original disaster

Obviously the leaking wells in the Gulf directly contaminate the ocean with release of oil and gas into the water.  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is probable that the solution offered initially, in the context of 1.8 million gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit, was even worse for the environment then the oil gash. Corexit is a chemical cocktail designed to break crude oil slicks into tiny droplets that are heavier than water, so that they can sink to the ocean floor, there to be “consumed” by tiny marine organisms and made to vanish from our radar screens. Out of sight, out of mind. In addition, the chemical brew created by mixing Corexit and crude oil has been implicated in the serious illness of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, especially the many that were hired by BP to disperse the chemical, or clean up the visible oil scars.

In June of this year, Playboy published a revealing article (pardon the pun) about the ongoing health catastrophe’s of the people that live and work in the Gulf of Mexico.

From the June 2015 Playboy article:

“BP also barred journalists from oil-soaked beaches, asked cleanup workers and scientists conducting BP-funded research to sign confidentiality agreements and even had in-house discussions about attempts to “direct” and “influence” scientific research studies, according to a series of e-mails Greenpeace obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. “You could not speak about what you saw,” says George Barisich of the cleanup program. “That was one of the rules. Otherwise you’d lose your job.”

According to a report by Florida State University published in 2014, more than 10 million gallons of the Corexit mixed oil remains on the gulf sea floor being consumed by the tiny marine organisms that it is engineered to feed. These droplets are also consumed by a variety of other creatures including fish.

According to a 2012 study by Georgia Tech researchers, combining Corexit with crude oil makes the brew 52 times more toxic to the marine organisms that consume it. These organisms are an essential part of the food chain. And this has shown itself in the oyster beds, coral reefs, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans that have contributed to the health of the ecosystem and the economy of the region. This has shown itself in the condition of dolphins, whales, birds and literally every other creature that depends on the ecosystem of the gulf.  And there is nothing good to report. The fisheries have collapsed despite what the PR people want you to believe. Hundreds of thousands of Gulf coast people have been pushed into extreme poverty and are experiencing horrible health consequences. People are dying. The Gulf is about gone. And we are talking, at least in terms of supporting humanity, that this is gone forever.

What we have here, is a failure of our economy. The model that we use, which includes legalized pollution and treating the negative impacts of profit on our social and environmental conditions as externalities, is as David Suzuki puts it “brain damage.”

Why is it that day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, we allow profit takers to extract wealth for themselves while the rest of us pay the costs of environmental disaster with our hard earned cash, our health, and our lives?  Are we really that stupid?  What is in that stuff that is trickling down on us?  It is certainly not reflective of a vibrant economic future for most of us.

Long History of Environmental Destruction of the Gulf

This disaster that has unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico began many years before the Macondo blowout when underwater wells began to be developed. The first official offshore freestanding well rig in the Gulf of Mexico was constructed by Pure Oil and superior Oil Company in 1938. It was wiped off its pilings in 1940 by a hurricane, was rebuilt and is said to have produced 4 million barrels annually until it went out of production decades later. Companies like Kerr-McGee and Halliburton got into the rig business and engineered a variety of innovations for the big oil companies including BP right up through and beyond the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Most of these wells have been abandoned. According to an Associated Press investigation published in July of 2010, more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf may be leaking. Furthermore they found that it is impossible to engineer a cap to plug an undersea well, although industry sources say that “a correctly plugged well will last forever.”  Many of these wells were abandoned and or plugged decades ago, long before contemporary construction regulations came into existence or because operators have violated the regulations. The bottom line is that the wells are not inspected because there is little money and no regulatory teeth for enforcement. The government relies industry operators to file paperwork regarding conditions of wells, and after a certain period of time, they no longer have to file anything to anyone. According the AP report the official government policy on inspecting these wells, abandoned or not is “out of sight, out of mind.”

Another  AP report  published in May of 2015 on just one leaking well in the Gulf shows that the well owned by Taylor Energy Company which has been known to be leaking for over a decade, may leak for another century.  It has leaked up to 1.4 million gallons since 2004. According to the report, the company says that nothing can be done to completely eliminate the chronic oil slicks that often stretch for miles off the coast of Louisiana.

What could be worse? It is simple to comprehend what is worse-All oil and gas wells leak. Some leak methane directly into the air, some create ground and water contamination with toxic pollutants. Millions of wells, all wells across the globe, leak. In the US alone it is estimated that there are 2.5 million “abandoned” oil and gas wells, none permanently capped.

This is a huge issue that relates completely to climate change. Legal pollution on a massive scale, profitable greenhouse gas emissions, and the ongoing destruction of earths ecosystems that are treated as economic externalities are central to our fate.

Just yesterday (July 8) an AP report revealed that a portion of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, known as the Seahorse Key on Florida’s gulf coast has been very recently abandoned by the thousands of birds including Blue herons, Roseate spoonbills, Snowy egrets, pelicans. This is a rookery that has existed for decades that is now vanished.  US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Vic Doig is quoted in the report as saying “It’s a dead zone now. This is where the largest bird colony on the Gulf Coast of Florida used to be.” It is too early to link this to the Macondo blowout but it is not to early to assume that human activity contributing to the ongoing ecological disaster of the Gulf of Mexico is going to be identified as a source of the problem.

This is personal. This kind of destruction and the relatively inexpensive costs to profit takers like the companies responsible for the Gulf catastrophe -and every other other environmental catastrophe that leaves the cost and consequences of the clean-up mostly to me an you and future generations is doing great harm. It is something that will effect our quality of life and our economic capacity and vitality for generations to come. These kinds of exploitations are happening in here Western New York and across the globe.  No matter what you think that you may have as a benefit from BP and the industries that exploit the Gulf, I can guarantee to you that the damages that they have created to this earth will be a thousand times over more damaging than good. We have to take it personally and we have to fight back.  $19 billion over 18 years?  It has made them nervous but it has not made them change. Never forgive, never forget. Thanks, Paul!

Jay Burney is environment and ecology editor for The Public and a founder of GreenWatch.