Book excerpt: “Colluders in Crude: The Oily Politics of How the Obama Administration Sided with BP Over the American People”


My feelings about BP and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe have been consistent from Day One. Working closely with dedicated environmentalists from Louisiana and elsewhere, we have never fully trusted the oil giant’s public version of events. We have fought for safety and protection of workers and wildlife — ever skeptical of early reports that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was safe to eat or that beaches were free of pollution.

I wish I could say the same thing about the federal government.

President Barack Obama had certainly talked a good game about environmental protection as he ascended to the White House in 2008, and certainly his instincts are not always automatically pro-Big Oil, as was the case with the Republican administration that came before him. However, the BP situation showed Obama and his appointees to act less as leaders and more as politicians, and not particularly good ones at that. Time and time again, on spraying the toxic dispersant Corexit into the Gulf, on making sure that cleanup workers had masks and other protective gear, on allowing the public access to see the extent of the damage and in opening up important research on the environmental impact of the spill, the government has been inclined to side more with this large British corporation and not so much with American citizens.

The bottom line is that sometimes the quest for environmental justice goes beyond mere political party. This is a theme that I explore more deeply in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America. This week, the outstanding website WhoWhatWhy ran an excerpt from the book that looks at this issue in-depth. Here’s a snippet of that:

Corexit was merely hiding the oil and spreading toxins over a larger area. This created even greater risks for the cleanup workers—risks they had not been trained to deal with.

Weeks after the spill, LEAN’s Marylee Orr pressed for admission to the main command centers, to which her NGO was supposed to have access. Eventually she and other Gulf environmental activists got a private meeting with a top federal official—EPA administrator and Louisiana native Lisa Jackson. They argued that the feds needed to force BP to stop spraying Corexit in the Gulf and produced evidence that Corexit was merely masking the oil and dispersing toxins over a bigger area.

(Hugh Kaufman, longtime EPA employee and whistleblower, said government officials were well aware of the hazards of Corexit, telling an interviewer that “in the Exxon Valdez case, people who worked with dispersants, most of them are dead now.  The average death age is around 50.”)

At first it seemed like Jackson was listening to their plea. A short time later, in late May, the EPA and the Coast Guard issued a joint order to BP telling the company to “eliminate” surface spraying of Corexit—unless the firm got a waiver from the Coast Guard because of exceptional circumstances.

You can guess how that all played out. BP asked for and routinely got a waiver from the Coast Guard to spray Corexit—day after day, including nine days in a row immediately after Lisa Jackson’s “order,” and ultimately 74 times over 54 days. An estimated million gallons of the toxic dispersant were deployed in the Gulf after the government’s supposed command to eliminate much of its use.

Later, independent laboratory tests performed for me confirmed what the experts had feared about the Corexit spraying: dispersing the oil actually meant taking the toxic elements of the oil from the surface, where they were highly concentrated but weren’t harming marine life below, and spreading them deep into Gulf waters.  Our lab tests showed toxic pollution of water at levels 35 times higher than before the oil was dispersed.

I encourage you to read the entire excerpt. I will also note this, that with constant pressure and criticism from activists, the government’s stance toward BP has grown somewhat more aggressive — at least when it comes to pursuing billions of dollars in damages for the company’s wanton negligence at the Deepwater Horizon. That just goes to show two things. That the push for environmental justice needs to be bottom up, from the people. And it needs to be relentless.

Read “Colluders in Crude,” the new excerpt from Crude Justice:

To read more about my battles with Big Oil, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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