Earth Day: Greenwashing works well for oil industry

Guest Opinion: While the industry buffs its image, Washington's waters are at increasing risk.
A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008).

A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008). 24hourmoon/Flickr

It’s Earth Day, but maybe it ought to be called Greenwash Day.

Just four years ago today, a massive gusher of oil began flowing from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. The oil rig in the Gulf had sunk two days earlier, leading to what was to become the largest accidental oil spill in history. The accident resulted in the death of 11 rig workers, at least 210 million gallons of crude oil spilled and what are today increasingly apparent impacts to the Gulf ecosystem.

BP is a company with what seems to be a knack for irony almost as strong as its commitment to going to great lengths to envelope itself in green for public relations purposes. Last month, on the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the company had an oil spill into Lake Michigan from their Whiting, Minn., refinery handling tar-sand oil from Alberta.

Last year BP announced a halt to its solar program, the very program behind the change to its current sun-inspired corporate logo. This year BP has announced an end to its renewable energy investment target. That is why this and future anniversaries of the largest accidental marine oil “spill” on the planet should be remembered as Greenwash Day in recognition of all the deception leading up to and following that needless loss of life and ecological destruction. This should serve as fair warning to the public to be aware as Earth Day has become increasingly co-opted by Astroturf organizations that are far less adroit then BP in burnishing their patina.

As George Palast writes in truth.org, BP was the “hidden culprit” for the failed response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. BP, as the primary operator of the Alyeska pipeline, it serves as the head of the oil spill response organization in Prince William Sound. It was responsible for ensuring there was enough equipment and personnel in place on March 24, 1989.

There’s a big similarity between the Alaska and Gulf spills. Despite the differences in oil type, volumes and ocean temperature there’s still oil in the environment in both places. In addition, species such as the Pacific herring in Prince William Sound have yet to recover and there have been much higher stranding rates of bottlenose dolphins (900) and sea turtles (500) in the Gulf since 2010. Local NOAA scientists documented damage to the heart tissue of blue and white fin tuna as a result of BP’s Gulf gusher that was consistent with findings it had with herring from an exponentially smaller spill from the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay. The impacts to long-lived species and the slowness for the oil to break down in both warm and cold environments refutes decades of oil industry-funded studies asserting oil spills create only short-term, “acute” impacts.

While there was relatively little news about the silver anniversary of the Exxon Valdez last month, Exxon’s reputation was significantly impacted by the spill over the years, especially with its efforts to place the blame on a drunken captain and fighting every lawsuit and penalty against it. This was not lost on BP.

Between 1998 and 2000, after merging five businesses together to create the third largest oil and gas producer in the world while simultaneously cutting $5.8 billion in costs, BP was keenly aware of the need to brand a new image.  BP’s chief executive at the time, Lord Browne, said at the 2001 annual meeting of shareholders, “We have some 10 million customers every day, as well as numerous crucial relationships with governments and other businesses. In each case their choices determine our ability to do business, and we have to invest in understanding what influences those choices and the brand identity which summarizes what we are and how we wish to be seen” (Continental Magazine, February 2001, italics added). In Canada, where pipeline giants, TransCanada, Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, vie to bring tar sand-derived oil to market, they refer to the most import permit as being the “social license” to construct the project.


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