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Send BP’s Spokespeople Home May 31, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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“There aren’t any underwater [oil] plumes.” – BP CEO Tony Hayward.

Why not?  Because Tony says so.  End of story.  At least as far as the mainstream media are concerned.

The oil is on the surface,” Hayward said. “Oil has a specific gravity that’s about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity.” –Tony Hayward, 5/30/10.

Duh.  Oil rises in water? Thanks for that expert analysis, Tony. But even a 23-year-old with an Internet connection can figure out why the oil isn’t just rising here, so that statement is a baldly transparent lie.  Hint: it has to do with the incredible amounts of toxic dispersants that YOU YOURSELF ordered injected into the well.

There is no question about the existence of these plumes.  Scientists from at least 4 different universities so far have independently found underwater oil plumes by analyzing images, video, and water samples.  They have even piloted submarines through the plumes.

Yet Tony Hayward is successfully combating scientific research in the media simply by saying that BP has found “no evidence” of such plumes, with zero elaboration on what testing they did.  BP claims to have 30 aircraft searching for signs of oil, but as I understand it most airplanes are confined to the air.  Perhaps they found no evidence because they didn’t look underwater.  Tony didn’t say and evidently was not asked.  How could anyone let him make that claim and not ask the follow up question?

This is what is wrong with our country.  I mean it.  Public accountability no longer exists It is not “gotcha” journalism to call out a public figure for a baseless lie or contradiction. That is not “media bias” or “unbalanced reporting” or any of those things.  It is JOURNALISM.  It is their jobs.  It is the reason why the media are protected in our country; democracy cannot function without objective news coverage.

As an aside, this is exactly what has happened in the politicized “debates” about climate change, healthcare, financial reform…you name it.  There are facts in this world.  Simply saying something is wrong does not ipso facto disprove its factuality or even call it into question.  And to dutifully report that “controversy” in the fanatical pursuit of “balance” is a loathsome perversion of objective journalism.  This was the subject of my honors thesis.

I still believe that BP has a compellingly strong financial incentive to lead the efforts to kill this well; there is no cost-benefit analysis that can be done in which BP benefits from having this well flow a single day longer than it has to.  Even in a scenario in which they are trying to save the well for future exploitation, the broader damage done to the company and even the industry by even a marginally larger, ongoing oil spill vastly outweighs any benefit they could gain from skimping on containment efforts.

It is worth mentioning again, however, that a similar, seemingly obvious economic argument should have compelled Exxon to use only double-hulled tankers after Exxon Valdez, but it has not.

Unfortunately, BP has another financial incentive as well.  As I pointed out last week, our biggest complaints with BP’s response are not about their containment actions, they’re about dishonesty, lack of transparency, and constantly downplaying of the scope of this disaster.  They’re about spin.

Following the blowout itself, which was obviously an engineering failure, how many critiques have you seen of BP’s engineers?  Not many.  They probably should have figured out methane hydrates would form in the first containment dome.  But our biggest problems have been with BP’s spokespeople (and executives operating in that role).  BP is doing literally as much damage control as it can.  And that is the real problem here.

BP has two, simultaneous damage control operations in action: one to protect the Gulf, and another to protect BP. One is trying to staunch the flow of hydrocarbons, the other is trying to staunch the flow of legal liability and corporate backlash.  One is taking place underwater, the other is taking place in the media.

We need this type of damage control. We could do without the other.

That Tony Hayward and BP continue to be able to make these claims is despicable.  But we have let it happen.

As one of many examples, recall the 5,000 barrel per day flow estimate.  For over a month, BP was able to low-ball the spill rate and nobody could authoritatively contest the claim.  They controlled the information.  BP barely backed down when caught in essentially Orwellian doublethink, on the day they claimed to be siphoning 5,000 bpd off of a 5,000 bpd spill.

This weekend, Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, finally conceded what the rest of us have been saying all along about the spill estimates: “BP has a financial interest in these numbers.”

And they have looked after that interest.  It is a huge boon to BP that this spill occurred offshore and at such great depth.  It might as well have happened in space.  In today’s world journalists can even embed in the military to cover wars in person, yet no journalist can independently corroborate any claim about this oil spill.  We couldn’t even see the spill until BP was forced to share the video feed.  In the absence of any other source of information, the media have trotted out BP’s statements verbatim.

New information about the spill is released almost exclusively by BP spokespeople, pre-spun and told from their perspective.  We have let them control this story, and it shows.

Tony Hayward’s fallacious denial of the underwater plumes should be everywhere.  It’s not.  I found it on the front page of the Huffington Post and buried in the 24th-27th paragraphs (out of 27) in a Washington Post article.  Thank goodness the AP also published a story.

I have been among many others to document lie after lie released by BP and covered in the media.  So let’s put an end to it.  Here’s my proposal:

The administration may well be correct in its assertion that BP is better equipped to handle the containment of this gusher.  Obviously, the government has additional resources to bring to bear, especially for the clean up operation, but BP has both the equipment and expertise that the physical solution to this problem requires.  They should continue that endeavor.  However, the administration should have assumed control of the information flow weeks ago, at the first signs of BP’s dishonesty.

If we really want to see results, we should muzzle BP’s executives and spokespeople.  Send them home.  Better yet, put them to work cleaning the despoiled beaches of Louisiana.

Currently, regardless of what happens, BP gets to spin its own story first.  This is a privilege they do not deserve and have repeatedly abused.  So let’s strip them of it.

Tony Hayward: “There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” Oh cry me a river. Take it, you duplicitous menace. Go home. Your work here is done.

Instead, have BP report their updates to the administration (or an independent body of experts, if you are concerned about more propaganda). Let someone less concerned about BP’s future synthesize the progress and inform the media.

I understand the desire to grill these executives and make them stew, and that time will come.  But we must start getting objective, unfiltered information about this catastrophe.

This would not only penalize BP for its actions, it would offer them another incentive to stop this spill.  If they are not allowed to spin their story, the only way they can get good coverage is to make their success self-evident.  No more excuses.

If BP cannot control its oil wells, we cannot let them control this story.  What have they done to deserve that courtesy?

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Why BP Deserves This May 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE: I have added a new page to this site to let you more easily find the answers to your oil spill questions.  It is the new “2010 oil spill/offshore drilling answers” tab next to the “about me” at the top of each page, or you can click here.***

As BP’s stock rightfully plummeted on account of the horrendous disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, CEO Tony Hayward said to fellow executives, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?

Since I have been taking the time to answer other questions about the oil spill here, I think I can spare a few minutes to answer dear Tony’s question as well.

BP CEO Tony Hayward doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to explain.

Some might call the blowout that engulfed the Horizon Deepwater rig in flames, killed 11 workers, injured 17 more, and unleashed an entire oil reservoir on the Gulf coast, an act of god.  Instead, I would counter that this is one of the real, now realized, risks of offshore drilling.  But can BP truly be blamed for this catastrophe?  In short, yes.  On account of simple, deliberate negligence.

And it could just as easy have happened, or even happen AGAIN, to any of the big oil companies operating off of our shores right now.

If you have been following the spill coverage, you have probably heard about the “blowout preventer.”  Blowout preventers (BOPs) are giant valve structures that can weigh 500,000 lbs and stand 50 feet tall.  They are bolted in position on the sea floor at the wellhead, where the “riser” pipe to the rig above penetrates the earth en route to the oil reservoir below.  They are full of redundant systems and backups because they are the ultimate failsafe to prevent disasters like the one we are now experiencing.  In the event of a high-pressure situation, they are designed to clamp shut, closing the well to prevent spills and protecting the oil rig above.  The Deepwater Horizon’s BOP failed.

As this story spreads, the oil industry will paint BOP failures as rare.  They are not. The unclassified version of a 1999 government report found that BOP failures are actually fairly common.  There were a staggering 117 BOP failures in just a 2-year period on the outer continental shelf of the U.S. alone.  Think about that: the last line of defense for American coasts failed more than 58 times per year. A 2007 paper from the Minerals Management Service said that there were 39 actual blowouts (not just BOP failures) between 1992 and 2007.  Add another one to both of those tallies.

Knowing that this final failsafe mechanism was imperfect and the multibillion dollar costs of an oil spill, you’d think that oil companies would do everything they could to prevent blowouts.  Instead, Big Oil used their millions of dollars in annual lobbying to FIGHT blowout preventer requirements.

Blowout Preventers are a flawed fail-safe. It is negligent not to employ every measure to improve their function.

BOPs operate on a type of dead-man switch.  The default position is closed.  The valve is only supposed to remain open if it receives a continuous signal from the rig above.  If that signal stops for any reason, the valves are supposed to slam shut.  Simple enough in theory, but as we now know, that doesn’t always happen.

Major oil-producing countries like Brazil and Norway responded to this concern 17 years ago in 1993.  BOPs on offshore wells there are required to have acoustic triggers, which can be used to remotely activate the BOP if everything else has failed.   The U.S. considered requiring remote-controlled shut-off mechanisms several years ago, but the oil industry successfully lobbied against the restriction, citing excessive costs.

Let’s examine their math, shall we?  Acoustic triggers cost an additional $500,000 per rig.  That’s the cost.  Now let’s look at the benefits: the Deepwater Horizon rig will cost $560 million to replace.  On top of that, BP is spending $6 million each day to try to contain spill.  When the oil really reaches the shore, those costs will multiply.  Then there’s the cleanup operation.

Finally, there are the legal battles.  Suits have already been filed and many more will follow.  Overall, Exxon paid $4.3 billion for the Valdez spill, and it should have been much more: the Prince William Sound still has oil on its beaches, and conservatives on the Supreme Court slashed the punitive fines that Exxon ultimately had to pay by 90% in 2008.

It is this last point that explains why oil companies can and do continue with their reckless behavior at the rest of the country’s expense.  Exxon was able to defer payment for its egregious actions for literally decades, and ultimately owed just four days’ profit in damages. That’s not even a slap on the wrist.

If that pisses you off as much as it does me, you will be similarly thrilled to hear this: while BP is obligated to pay for all of the cleanup effort, our nation’s powerful oil lobby succeeded in shielding oil companies from any real legal liability for spills decades ago.

The first jury (before the lengthy appeals process that well-oiled industry lawyers were able to win) awarded Exxon’s victims $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages.  As I said, they ended up paying only about 10% of that and not until decades later.  So what about BP?  Their actual legal liability for damages is capped at $75 million.  That’s right, $75 million.  God bless America.

More on Exxon Valdez and a similarly twisted cost-benefit analysis for single- vs. double- hulled tankers here.

So, in conclusion, BP/Tony: you deserve this because you skimped on safety precautions you knew to be inadequate.  It is an unmitigated tragedy that so many millions of people and countless innocent animal lives will bear the TRUE costs of your failures.  The same way mining safety caught up to Massey Coal last month, drilling safety just caught up to you.  These events shouldn’t be called “accidents.” The term “inevitables” would be far more appropriate.  As long as we continue to allow these industries to determine their own safety standards, the public (and their employees) will continue to pay the price for their reckless gluttony.

This would segue nicely into a diatribe against…erm, discussion of the absurd Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, but there are more pressing concerns at the moment.