BP and the Great Disconnect


Sometimes you have to wonder whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. That’s definitely the case with BP and its horrific environmental track record here in the Gulf.

On one hand, environmental officials continue to tally the damage from the massive BP oil spill that took place more than three and a half years ago, and today even officials who once downplayed the effects of Deepwater Horizon can no longer hide the widespread, devastating impacts. A comprehensive assessment of the damage that BP caused, released this weekend by federal and state trustees of oil-spill penalties, is an eye-opener if you have not been following this story closely:

The report cites studies showing continued problems with growing oysters in both Louisiana waters, where freshwater diversions designed to keep oil out of wetlands killed oyster beds, and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, which may be linked to toxic chemicals associated with the BP oil. It also recounts concerns about the deaths of hundreds of bottlenosed dolphins, thousands of sea turtles and migratory waterfowl — plus potential reproductive problems for these species.

The report also outlines concerns about tiny organisms living in deep water in the Gulf, and the possible effects of their loss on commercial fisheries, while also raising questions about the future of deepwater coral reefs and bottom-loving organisms close to the site of the BP Macondo well 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast.

As noted by the Times-Picayune, many of these impacts have been documented before but this may be the first time that so much damaging information was crammed into one report by such an authoritative group. What’s more, some key information is still unavailable:

The report provides only a summary of most contamination concerns. And while both federal officials and BP have made so-called “metadata” — individual sample collection records — available during the past few months, more comprehensive reports explaining how the spill may have affected — and may still be affecting — wildlife are believed being kept under wraps by federal and state officials who are concerned that BP could walk away from their obligations.

So where’s the great disconnect? On one hand, it’s true that the federal government has been aggressive in going both after criminal fines and Clean Water Act penalties that will ultimately cost BP billions of dollars, which is better than some expected after watching federal regulators routinely kowtow to the British oil giant in the early days after the 2010 spill. On the other hand, those fines — record-setting as they are — are still just a small fraction of the profits that BP racked up while it was producing oil in the Gulf and elsewhere around the planet in such a reckless fashion.

And more importantly, the government’s need for BP to continue making such profits to pay off its fines has forced the United States to become a partner with BP and to root for it to make exorbitant profits. That’s the bizarre twist: Just 43 months after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP is now drilling for oil in the Gulf at record-high levels.

Three years [after the spill], there are a record 39 rigs drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to IHS Petrodata, as drillers probe enormous troves of oil in untapped formations — some of which are under especially high temperature and pressure.

…Environmentalists are alarmed. “You hope (BP) has learned their lesson, but the nature of the business is that there are going to be spills, there is human error,” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program. “These high pressure wells could cause another environmental disaster in the Gulf.”

For BP, drilling deeper is a bold and crucial step. CEO Bob Dudley told colleagues at an industry conference last year that management “thought very carefully before re-committing the company to the deep water following the 2010 accident.” The spill has cost BP $42.5 billion, and legal battles are ongoing.

Count me as one of those alarmed environmentalists. Frankly, after what we’ve learned in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, I wouldn’t let BP drill a new picture frame in my living room. But the idea that they are back in the Gulf, drilling deeper and in more hostile environments than ever before; makes me sick to my stomach. To deal with one BP catastrophe in the Gulf has been heartbreaking. But to deal with a second manmade disaster — knowing what we’ve since learned — would be unconscionable.

Read the Times-Picayune article on the Deepwater Horizon environmental impact report at: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/12/bp_oil_spill_natural_resource.html

Learn more about BP’s renewed levels of drilling in the Gulf at: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/bp-pushes-technical-limits-tap-extreme-fields

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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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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