Happy Anniversary BP! The Oil Spill Two Years Later

categories: Cocktail Hour


BP  recently got an anniversary present: close to $24 billion in net profits for 2011.  Happy to know that all is well in the corporate ecosystem. 

Today, at my NRDC blog, “Wild Life,” I talk with Bethany Kraft, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the Ocean Conservancy about the current state of the Gulf.  It’s a fairly comprehensive piece on the most recent scientific results on dolphin deaths, seafood, and damaged ecosystems.  

As for BP, the below is adapted from The Tarball Chronicles:

After another fifteen minutes we reach the rig itself. The Deepwater Horizon Rig and the boats around it look like Tonka Toys. The rig platform is lit up by the green nimbus of the sunny and flowering BP logo. Dozens of boats, tiny from up here, gather around the rig, as if trying to protect and comfort it. To us the rig may look like a toy but it is in fact a great metal island, capable of housing over a hundred people. Still with its green logo it appears almost cheery, as it is no doubt supposed to look, and of course the scene looks not just sunny but industrious, with no hint of despair.

In broad daylight it is hard to picture the fiery hell of April 20th, the night when the methane bubble blew up through the well and exploded at the platform, killing eleven, injuring seventeen more, and sending dozens leaping off the platform into the flaming water. What was it like to take that ten-story plunge? The chief Engineer said later that he thought of his wife and his little girl before closing his eyes and making the leap. Those, I am sure, would have been exactly my thoughts.    

In the story being told right now the Deepwater explosion was a great tragedy, but also something anomalous, an “accident” of course, a terrible accident. But is something an accident if crucial tests are skipped, if costs are cut, if warning systems are turned off so alarms won’t ring, and if even the CEOs of Shell and Exxon–a Big Oil cohort that is known to stick together–have sworn in front of Congress that the Deepwater Horizon well did not come close to meeting industry standards? Is something an accident if a billion dollar company, the world’s fourth largest, decides it needs even greater profits, and sends a top-down directive to cut costs by 25 percent? “I’m not a cement engineer,” BP’s CEO Tony Hayward told Congress in way of feeble defense, but presumably he had a few cement engineers working for him. He also said famously “I’d like my life back,” a sentiment no doubt shared by the eleven dead crew members and their families.

Far from anomalous, disasters were, by the time of the spill, become commonplace in the world of British Petroleum. Over the past decade the company went from the little brother of oil to one of the big guns, acquiring Amoco and Arco in the process. But during that heady rush the company’s M.O. was to take risks and cut costs, safety be damned. This is not overstatement. BP has led the Big Oil League in deaths and disaster. In 2005, fifteen people were killed and 170 injured when BP’s Texas City refinery blew up due to shoddy safety standards. In July of that same year BP’s flagship for deepwater drilling, the giant off-shore rig, Thunder Horse–Thunder Horse!–was toppled, seemingly by hurricane Dennis but in fact by faulty valves hastily installed. The next year BP hit the disaster trifecta when 20,000 gallons spilled from a rusty pipeline in Prudehoe Bay on the north slope of Alaska.

Which leads to the question: if things happen regularly and for the same reasons do they still qualify as accidents? Which leads in turn to the next and larger question: if we, as a country, keep acting in ways that lead to shocking events, isn’t it time to stop being shocked?

Not that it isn’t shocking. A 20,000 gallon spill, like the one in Alaska, is a disaster. But over 200,000,000 gallons have spilled from the well below me since early April.

We circle the rig again. I stare down to try to see the  deeper story. It was down there that eleven people were sacrificed in the name of profit. Is that an exaggeration? Tony Hayward and Carl Svanberg might be scapegoats–and fine scapegoats they are, with diabolical accents to match–but what about the board of directors? And what about the system that created the board? The group and the philosophy that demanded that this company, despite earning billions of dollars, had to earn even more to sate them; that to do so, to provide more billions, a 25 percent cut in operations had to be enacted, even as those operations were expanding downward into new territory, 13,000 feet below the ocean floor? How were those cuts enacted? Simply and systematically: by cutting corners and skipping regulations and eliminating safety measures. Piles of money that could support a small city for decades were being divided between a board made up of a dozen or so people. And yet no one could be bothered to pay a few hundred thousand on tests, nor could they abide a alarms that might slow them down.

Take this down to a personal level and it seems almost inconceivable. This is not the first time I’ve traveled this country and I am always surprised by how decent people are. But where are all those exceptional individuals in a moment like this one? Is it only in large groups that most people are allowed to bury their morals? No healthy individual would ever do to their family or clan what this corporation has done to the people of the Gulf. Individuals would face immediate ostracism. Maybe it’s as simple a problem as the size of the organization, or even the words “organization” and “system.” When profit is laid down as the greatest priority and one’s job–one’s self-interest–hinges on that profit, simple commonsensical goodness flies out the window.

I am wrestling with these ideas in my mind and can’t stem the tide of confusion. It’s too much to handle all at once. In our over-simplified political discourse we talk a lot about the importance of business, but we also talk a lot about freedom and individual rights. But a corporation like BP is about as individualistic as a batch of flesh eating bacteria–there is no debate over what the collective will is: grow and profit, no matter the cost. What does freedom mean when we blindly trust that an entity like BP will not destroy the world we rely on for our health, happiness, and wellbeing?

We don’t stop there, though. Before I came down here I watched the congressional hearings where Tony Hayward testified. A woman jumped up from the back row and waved her hands, which she had painted black, and yelled: “He should be charged with a crime!” She was quickly dragged away. It’s easy to roll our eyes and call her a wacko, relegating her to the category of NFL fans who paint their chests and wear wedges of cheese on their heads. But she is right. Rather than being charged with a crime, this man’s famously inept and dangerous company is being charged with running the cleanup. It is hard to imagine a culture in which this would possibly happen: not only do we trust them, but, when they err, we trust them yet more.

* * *     


and DAVID GESSNER’s Writing on the Gulf Oil Spill

Environment/Nonfiction • Milkweed Editions • September 2011


Winner of the Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment 2011

Top Books from the South 2011 Atlanta Journal Constitution

A San Francisco Chronicle Gift Book Recommendation 


“Anyone who wanted a first-hand look at the Gulf after the news cycle ended will find it here . . . a brilliant, thoughtful book.” —Publishers Weekly (STARRED review)

If you read only one book about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this year, it should be this one. If you plan not to read any books about it, make an exception for this blunt, funny, eye-opening quest to find the real stories behind the Gulf crisis.

Shelf Awareness

For those interested in putting the Gulf crisis in perspective, there can be no better guide than this funny, often uncertain, frank, opinionated, always curious, informed and awestruck accounting of how we’ve gone wrong and could go right, a full-strength antidote to the Kryptonite of corporate greed and human ignorance.                                                                                                                                                                                                       –Atlanta Journal Constitution

 “Expressive and adventurous. A profoundly personal inquiry into the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe unique in its hands-on immediacy and far-ranging ruminations.”

—Donna Seaman, Booklist

 Gessner crafts a powerfully informative but also immensely relatable narrative. He shows that while the national media has moved on to other stories and the oil has sunk to the ocean floor, the full impact of the gulf oil spill remains to be seen and the questions it raised must still be answered. Somehow he succeeds in teaching without lecturing or moralizing, making “The Tarball Chronicles” entertaining and rousing despite its disheartening subject matter.

                                                                                                                        –Mother Nature Network


David Gessner is on a roll.” —New Orleans Times-Picayune


Gessner has the heart and mind of an investigative journalist. . . . Not everyone will be pleased with this Jeremiah in our midst, but the word is a fire and a hammer, and Gessner delivers it well.”

 —Mobile Press-Register

“In this highly readable, firsthand account of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, David Gessner considers the catastrophe in the Gulf as a symptom of even bigger economic and cultural challenges that loom in our future. This excellent book is not judgmental, but thought provoking and well worth reading.”

—David Allen Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds


Brilliant—the best and most original writing coming out of the Gulf.”

—Scott Dodd, OnEarth magazine, Natural Resources Defense Council



Plenty of people are writing about the BP oil disaster, but few indeed will be able to make us feel the reality of it like David Gessner can. The likelihood that his account will also be action-filled and darkly funny is pure bonus.”

—John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author of Pulphead


 Order or comment on The Tarball Chronicles HERE.




  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    “there is no debate over what the collective will is: grow and profit, no matter the cost. “This is ,as Tommy points out well, a fine hand gesture.There is no substantive debate on the open surface of mainstream media,only bait;switches and carrots.But there is debate happening on many levels throughout our culture-and like the oil in the Gulf it’s not on the surface but it’s there and the impacts are complex,long lasting and wide ranging.The Chief Engineer”he thought of his wife and his little girl before closing his eyes and making the leap.”Surely we,all parents at least, share that.
    As to your question “isn’t it time to stop being shocked?”I think it is rather the opposite-and your gesture here is effective in doing that largely because it’s aimed at us all .
    “I am always surprised by how decent people are”; shocks us too.In the fun house mirror of media everybody is a villain or hero,saint or scum.In my life the basic decency of individuals, appealed to with honesty and clarity,is the only reason I’m not dead or in jail.Scaling up that type of work is a daunting task and I am impressed with the example you set.Thanks.

  2. Tommy writes:

    Nice hand gesture. Anyone familiar with your recent writing will know that gesture is gesticulated at yourself, as well. It’s much more gratifying to point fingers than to admit we’re all part of the problem. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And for the rest of us armchair activists, it’s best to fan the flames when you see a spark! So, Bravo!!!! (again)

  3. An Alewife writes:

    Excellent writing indeed.

    Forgive me, but I think you may be on the cusp of creating a new group of “nature” writers, if you haven’t already.

    Those that live in the nation of Righteous IndigNation.

    There’s even a bumper sticker that goes along…

    “Increase Cognitive Dissonance”

    HDT would be proud.

    PS – when are you coming to Dennis?

  4. Cider Rides writes:

    Two years Today since the Deepwater Horizon Accident: 50 years, this week, since the release of “Silent Spring”. What have we learned? AND … WHY?