By Allison Fisher, Outreach Director, Climate and Energy Program, Public Citizen
Five years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. In the aftermath of the crisis, BP pledged to make the Gulf Coast and the victims of the oil disaster whole. Five years later, this promise has yet to be fulfilled. In fact, BP’s early pledge has largely been cast aside, because the cost to keep that promise has exceeded how much BP is willing to spend.
The price tag BP put on making the Gulf whole – to cover fines, legal settlements and clean-up costs – is $43 billion. The company claims to have spent $27 billion already. And with BP facing up to $14 billion in additional penalties under the Clean Water Act, as well as more penalties under the natural resources damage assessment process and other claims, BP has needed to employ an aggressive legal strategy and PR campaign to keep its cost below $43 billion.
In place of the pledge to make the Gulf whole, the corporation appears to have adopted a new goal: keep BP whole.
Which means instead of taking responsibility for the damage it caused, BP is using its vast resources on lawyers and public relations operatives to limit compensation and deflect accountability.
In a calculated effort to limit and delay compensation to those who lost or had their livelihoods marred by the disaster, BP launched a campaign in 2012 that included asking the court to freeze all payouts to victims while investigators reviewed, at BP’s request, potential fraudulent claims; attempting to have the 2012 economic damages settlement it wrote overturned by the courts; shutting out victims that opted out of the settlement by closing its internal claims program in June 2014; and running full-page ads in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, whining that businesses like BP are the real victims of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected BP’s appeal of its settlement to compensate Gulf Coast individuals and businesses harmed by the disaster, clearing the way for claims under the settlement to resume.
However, thousands who opted out of the economic damage settlement – because it did not adequately cover their losses – have been left with little recourse to recover damages from BP.
And communities in the Gulf and workers who assisted in the oil spill cleanup efforts, who are still plagued by illnesses associated with toxic dispersant BP used to break up the oil, may never receive compensation for their oil spill-related illness.
In the immediate aftermath of the spill cleanup, crews reported experiencing dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea, asthma attacks and coughing up blood. A study by the American Journal of Medicine found that those exposed to the dispersant, Corexit, have an increased risk of cancer and a host of other illnesses.
In 2013, the whistle was blown on BP for lying and misleading workers about the risks associated with the cleanup. But BP is disputing the spill’s role in health problems. In January, on the opening day of testimony in the final phase of the oil spill civil trial, BP’s public health expert witness testified that there is “no compelling evidence” that the oil spill damaged the health of cleanup workers and Gulf Coast residents, and there is no reason to believe longer-term studies will expose chronic illnesses linked to the disaster.
In November, a federal judge in New Orleans reluctantly ruled that roughly 95 percent of the workers injured from exposure to crude oil and dispersants during the spill no longer qualify for automatic compensation under BP’s medical benefits settlement. The judge told BP’s lawyers their interpretation was “troubling” and wasn’t what he was originally told when he signed off on the medical benefits settlement. The ruling could save BP as much as $1.2 billion.
New reports continue to document the ongoing damage caused by the oil spill. But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to BP.
Last April, just days before the fourth anniversary of the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, BP issued a rosy statement declaring that active cleanup of the oil spill had come to a close. In response, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a statement saying, “not by a long shot.”
This year is no different.
In March, BP released a new report on the Gulf of Mexico claiming that affected areas are recovering and long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species will be insignificant. This time, the council of federal and state Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees, Louisiana officials and environmentalists called out BP’s spin. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released this statement in response to the report: “Citing scientific studies conducted by experts from around the Gulf, as well as this council, BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims and attempts to obscure our role as caretakers of the critical resources damaged by the spill.”
In fact, researchers continue to find oil and uncover new damages – from lung disease in dolphins to the destruction of critical wetlands.
To challenge studies reporting the damaging effects of the oil disaster, BP has launched two websites, “The State of the Gulf” and “The Whole Story.” BP leverages the sites to address what it deems “misinformation” and “questionable science.” In fact, these sites exist solely for the purposes of attacking research and media reports that examine spill-related threats to the Gulf.
BP’s cherry-picked reports and assaults on studies detailing the ongoing damage caused by the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into Gulf of Mexico are tactics to minimize BP’s fines and limit it liability.
To be sure, none of BP’s tactics are new and its strategy to protect its bottom line is not shocking, but if the company succeeds in protecting itself, it could be at the expense of the people, communities and habitats devastated by the 87-day oil spill crisis.
Today, on the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, we shouldn’t focus on the “unprecedented” amount BP is paying for its manmade disaster. We should look at what BP is trying to avoid paying and what that means for the people and environment still trying to recover.
Otherwise we’re only telling half the story.