BP Really Wants You to Think the Gulf Is OK

With billions on the line, the oil giant wants to change minds five years after the Gulf spill.

Pelicans covered in oil wait in a holding pen for cleaning at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, Louisiana, on June 9, 2010.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
April 19, 2015, 4 p.m.

On the fifth an­niversary of the massive oil spill that spewed more than 200 mil­lion gal­lons of oil in­to the Gulf of Mex­ico, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are ready to dredge up the pic­tures of oil-coated birds and tar balls lap­ping up onto beaches.

At a Thursday press con­fer­ence, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key of Mas­sachu­setts held up a jar of oil-pol­luted wa­ter, and rep­res­ent­at­ives from en­vir­on­ment­al groups told stor­ies of dev­ast­ated wet­lands and wild­life to ar­gue against ex­pan­ded drilling. The mere memory of the spill, Mar­key said, should make the case that “the next off­shore oil dis­aster is still just one mis­take away.” Later in the day, he tweeted foot­age from the 2010 livestream of the spill as a “Throw­back Thursday” mes­sage.

But BP’s got a dif­fer­ent mes­sage: The Gulf of Mex­ico is do­ing just fine.

Last month, the oil gi­ant pub­lished a com­pany-branded re­port on its web­site say­ing that the Gulf had re­covered to its pre-spill state and that the oil had largely dis­persed. Cit­ing data from the com­pany it­self and the gov­ern­ment, the re­port said that pop­u­la­tions of birds, crabs, shrimp, and oth­er spe­cies were ro­bust and that there would be no “sig­ni­fic­ant long-term im­pact to the pop­u­la­tion of any Gulf spe­cies.”

(RE­LATED: Why Obama’s Former Off­shore Drilling Cop is Still Wor­ried)

BP has also been push­ing its com­mit­ment to the Gulf, high­light­ing the $700 mil­lion spent on re­cov­ery pro­jects (un­der the terms of a 2011 agree­ment, BP will spend up to $1 bil­lion on res­tor­a­tion). Ads re­leased this month fea­ture Bob Fryar, the com­pany’s glob­al safety stand­ards lead­er, talk­ing about its new safety work—and high­light­ing his Louisi­ana roots.

But BP’s mes­sage is far dif­fer­ent from what oth­er sci­entif­ic stud­ies have found. A sur­vey of Gulf stud­ies re­leased by the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion said that at least 20 spe­cies are still at risk, with dol­phins dy­ing at his­tor­ic rates, oil and dis­pers­ant be­ing found in white pel­ic­an eggs across the coun­try, and cor­al reefs be­ing im­pacted even in the deep sea.

At best, sci­ent­ists say, the ef­fects of the spill are still un­known. In fact, it’s not even clear how much oil still re­mains in the wa­ter.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that BP would be pro­mot­ing a firm mes­sage of re­cov­ery in the years after the spill, which res­ul­ted from an ex­plo­sion that killed 11 people on a BP-owned rig. The com­pany took an all-time pub­lic re­la­tions blow im­me­di­ately after the ac­ci­dent, from which it has nev­er fully re­covered.

(RE­LATED: BP Oil Chief: In­dustry Should Be “Less Aloof” In Cli­mate Fray)

BP’s ef­forts may not be do­ing much to change hearts and minds. In a March state­ment, the state and fed­er­al agen­cies work­ing on a gov­ern­ment dam­age as­sess­ment said the com­pany “mis­in­ter­prets and mis­ap­plies data while ig­nor­ing pub­lished lit­er­at­ure that doesn’t sup­port its claims.” Stud­ies show that BP’s brand is still viewed neg­at­ively even years after the spill.

But the mes­saging ef­fort isn’t just aimed at re­pair­ing a dam­aged brand; BP also des­per­ately needs to change the nar­rat­ive of the oil spill if it hopes to sur­vive costly fines be­ing weighed in court, a pro­cess that will likely last years.

“This won’t make up for a weak leg­al case, but it ex­ists on the mar­gins,” said Jonath­an Adler, a law pro­fess­or at Case West­ern Re­serve Uni­versity. “The more high-pro­file a case is, and this one is pretty high-pro­file, you can’t help but come to it with some know­ledge or a gen­er­al sense of what’s go­ing on. A judge won’t read an op-ed and de­cide a case, but de­cisions are made in the broad­er con­text.”

BP faces a po­ten­tial $13.7 bil­lion in Clean Wa­ter Act fines for the spill, an amount the com­pany says would threaten its busi­ness. It’s un­likely that Carl Bar­bi­er, the U.S. dis­trict judge de­cid­ing the fine amount based on factors like BP’s ef­forts to pay and the dam­age caused, is go­ing to be swayed by a friendly web­site or an ad. But the fine is al­most sure to be ap­pealed through the court sys­tem, even while BP will likely face oth­er leg­al troubles as the ripple ef­fects of the spill play out.

(RE­LATED: Eliza­beth War­ren Slams Big Oil, Says Ma­jor Com­pan­ies Profit From Pol­lu­tion

Just about the only his­tor­ic­al ana­logue for BP’s situ­ation is that of Ex­xon­Mobil, which is still deal­ing with the leg­al and en­vir­on­ment­al fal­lout of the 1989 Ex­xon Valdez spill in Prince Wil­li­am Sound. The com­pany has already shelled out bil­lions for that spill, but a 1992 set­tle­ment with Alaska and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment al­lowed the case to be re­opened as dam­ages are still as­sessed.

Patrick Par­en­teau, a law pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Ver­mont who works on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues, said that de­term­in­ing eco­sys­tem dam­age is a tricky pro­spect, giv­en the nat­ur­al unique eco­sys­tem of the Gulf and the lack of know­ledge about the spill in gen­er­al. “As new evid­ence comes out, it’s all go­ing to be rel­ev­ant,” Par­en­teau said, “but the sci­ence tells us this could take dec­ades be­fore we know the full ex­tent of the dam­age to the mar­ine eco­sys­tem.”

The an­niversary also comes amid an in­tense de­bate about the mer­its and dangers of off­shore drilling. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in Janu­ary took steps to open areas of the At­lantic Ocean to off­shore drilling, and en­ergy com­pan­ies are eye­ing Arc­tic wa­ters. With com­pan­ies lick­ing their lips to tap off­shore re­serves, the in­dustry at large wants to pro­mote an im­age that off­shore drilling is safe, which means mak­ing sure people don’t see pic­tures of an oil-coated Gulf and ima­gine the same hap­pen­ing off the At­lantic Coast.

So, five years out, is BP’s PR strategy work­ing?

(RE­LATED: Obama’s Oil Com­plex)

Sam Sing­er, who runs the San Fran­cisco-based pub­lic af­fairs firm Sing­er As­so­ci­ates, said BP was do­ing what it could to stay ahead of the story, but that com­pany-branded tweets and re­ports would only go so far.

“The ad­vert­ising, the Web pages, these are all ex­cel­lent tac­tics, but BP has been wholly un­suc­cess­ful be­cause they’re just not cred­ible,” Sing­er said. “If BP was genu­inely be­ing suc­cess­ful in the re­cov­ery, then some lead­ers in the Gulf or en­vir­on­ment­al groups would be telling that story with and for the com­pany. And that’s not hap­pen­ing.”

Dor­ie Clark, an ad­junct pro­fess­or at Duke Uni­versity’s Fuqua School of Busi­ness, said BP needs a third party to sup­port its story, either a trus­ted en­vir­on­ment­al group or in­de­pend­ent sci­ent­ists. Clark said the com­pany faces tre­mend­ous hurdles in get­ting back in the pub­lic’s good graces, and it would take a show of com­mit­ment that the Gulf was get­ting bet­ter.

“Ad­vert­ising doesn’t make up for fun­da­ment­al prob­lems in their ex­e­cu­tion of du­ties as a com­pany,” Clark said.

(RE­LATED: Oil Gi­ant BP Drops Mem­ber­ship With ALEC)

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the spill, BP’s out­reach was widely mocked, es­pe­cially with then-chair­man Tony Hay­ward mak­ing pub­lic gaffes like say­ing he wanted his life back. A 2012 study found that con­sumers still had an aver­sion to BP com­pared to its com­pet­it­ors, and a 2014 fol­low-up re­vealed that the brand still ranked low on per­cep­tions of warmth and com­pet­ence.

Some of the com­pany’s out­reach on the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact has been met with skep­ti­cism. Not­ably, spokes­man Geoff Mor­rell pub­lished a ma­ligned op-ed in Politico Magazine last year un­der the head­line “No, BP Didn’t Ru­in The Gulf” and cri­ti­cized re­port­ers at a So­ci­ety of En­vir­on­ment­al Journ­al­ists con­fer­ence in Septem­ber for ig­nor­ing pos­it­ive stor­ies on the Gulf.

“The data col­lec­ted thus far shows that the en­vir­on­ment­al cata­strophe that so many feared, per­haps un­der­stand­ably at the time, did not come to pass, and that the Gulf is re­cov­er­ing faster than ex­pec­ted,” Mor­rell said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We re­main com­mit­ted to restor­ing those nat­ur­al re­sources that re­li­able data and sci­ence de­term­ine the spill in­jured.”

While BP it­self may not be re­cov­er­ing, the spill didn’t do much to change the pub­lic’s opin­ion of off­shore drilling. Al­though sup­port for off­shore oil drilling dipped in 2010, a Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that just two years after the spill, 65 per­cent of those polled sup­por­ted ex­pan­ded drilling, and sub­sequent polls have shown sup­port as well.

In a re­view of pub­lic re­sponse, Ash­lee Humphreys, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or at North­west­ern Uni­versity’s Me­dill School of Journ­al­ism, found that the BP and Ex­xon Valdez spills had little last­ing in­flu­ence, a phe­nomen­on de­rided by greens as “oil-spill am­ne­sia.”

“At­ten­tion wanes after six months, a year,” Humphreys said. “When these are framed as isol­ated events that are un­fore­see­able, where ap­pro­pri­ate resti­tu­tion has been made, there’s no lar­ger con­nec­tion between spills.”

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, however, say they’re not let­ting up, and that they will con­tin­ue to push against more drilling and en­sure that at­ten­tion is paid to the Gulf. Jonath­an Hende­r­son of the Gulf Res­tor­a­tion Net­work, a Louisi­ana-based group, said he sees firsthand the areas where wild­life has been decim­ated and the sea­food in­dustry hasn’t re­covered.

“Des­pite the glossy ads that BP will spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on, the signs are there,” Hende­r­son said. “You can get in a boat through the marshes and our wild­life refuges and still see oil churn­ing through the mo­tor. It’s all there. … The Gulf is not re­covered.”

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