BP offers a lesson in how to sugarcoat an environmental disaster

BP claims it didn't "ruin the gulf"--but it's far too early to tell

The giant oil company BP doesn't do small-scale.

Not only is it responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill -- "unprecedented" in its "volume, depth, and spatial scale," in the words of the National Research Council -- but the firm has mounted what certainly looks like an unprecedented PR campaign to minimize the damage, along with a years-long effort to dodge the financial consequences of its spill.

This week, Politico provided the company with another valuable platform for its PR -- a two-page online spread titled "No, BP Didn't Ruin the Gulf." The piece was written by one Geoff Morrell, who turns out to be the oil company's spokesman, as you'll discover if you read down to the bottom of the screen.

As we honor the life and career of the just-departed former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, we should mark this groundbreaking advance in Washington journalism: a corporate advertisement presented as "opinion." It's not evident that BP paid for its placement in Politico, but whether it forked over nothing, a little or a lot, it scored well: as we write, Morrell's piece is demurely sharing space on Politico Magazine's home page with reported articles on Ebola policy, the Supreme Court's influence on election rules, and the fall of Atlantic City. 

But it's not Politico's credibility that's at issue here; it's BP's. Let's examine whether the oil company has any. 

Morrell begins by posing an overarching question: "What impact did the spill actually have on the Gulf Coast environment?"

The answer, if you study the findings of experts, is that the spill has had massive impacts. These include immediate effects on sea fowl, marine mammals, and coral; and long-term effects on dolphins, sea turtles, fish and wildlife populations, and the gulf food web. Moreover, many effects are still imponderable at this time, because no one has studied an oil spill of this magnitude in a unique ecosystem such as the gulf. Assessing the damage may take decades, covering generations of animals.

BP sidesteps that point. Morrell mentions several predictions that were made in the immediate aftermath of the spill, and that were manifestly conjectural -- "tar balls...all the way to Europe," "a permanent end" to the gulf seafood industry, tourism revenues depressed for years.

"None of those things happened," Morrell states, as if that proves that there were no major effects. The only effects he acknowledges are short-term--11 workers killed, birds, fish and wildlife killed. "And with a camera trained 24/7 on the wellhead," he writes, "a sense of alarm was understandable while the well was flowing." (Yes, durn that camera -- if only the spill unfolded without witnesses, things would have been so much better.)

As for longer-term effects, Morrell attributes many of the reports to "advocacy groups (that) cherry-pick evidence and promote studies that paint an incomplete and inaccurate picture." He then proceeds to cherry-pick ostensibly exaggerated impacts: "For example, these groups claim the spill harmed the Gulf’s oyster population," he writes. "What they don’t say is that government sampling in 2010, 2011 and 2012 did not document a single visibly oiled oyster bed.

Here's what Morrell didn't say: The gulf oyster harvest is today near a historical low. Because oysters take three years to reach maturity, according to the Gulf Seafood Institute, gulf harvesters fear that they're seeing the oil spill impacts right now. According to historical cycles, oyster landings "currently should be trending upwards; but they’re not." Is this a consequence of the Deepwater Horizon spill? The most anyone can say is that the jury is still out. But it's certainly way too early to declare the impact "fiction," as BP would prefer.

In short, the questions about the impact of the oil spill haven't yet been answered. Not even close. BP has an obvious corporate interest in treating the spill as yesterday's news. It's not. BP has been adjudicated the legally responsible party for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's a litigant facing billions of dollars in claims and penalties. It doesn't have an "opinion" worth reading, only a legal interest to promote. When a news organization such as Politico helps it promote its own interest, neither partner looks good.

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