Earth Day: Greenwashing works well for oil industry

Guest Opinion: While the industry buffs its image, Washington's waters are at increasing risk.
Crosscut archive image.

A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008).

Guest Opinion: While the industry buffs its image, Washington's waters are at increasing risk.

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, 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.

Lord Browne well understood the concept of social license. As a result of the ensuing public relations blitz following its merger with ARCO and others, British Petroleum, now BP, came to be known as one of the world’s most respected businesses. Unfortunately, it was better at depicting how it wished to be seen than how it actually was. Just four years after the shareholder speech, the Financial Times reported that BP was facing challenges maintaining its image.

Last year at this time, coinciding with the third anniversary of BP’s Earth Day blowout, I wrote that BP should be suspended from all government contracts due to its recidivism across numerous lines of business.  By diversifying its defense fuel providers, the government would at least limit its exposure to BP’s repeated operational failures. Such patterns of conduct as BP has shown are indicative of an entrenched corporate culture that is in stark contrast to its enormous public persona.  On April 18, 50 citizen groups called on the EPA to reimpose BP’s suspension from government contracts.

Instead, less than 16 months after being barred from new federal contracts for its “lack of integrity,” BP is already back in the Gulf having won bids on 24 tracts for $41.6 million prior to the fourth anniversary of its colossal error. BP also continues to push into “extreme” fields in the Gulf, even at twice the depth of the Deepwater Horizon. It appears that knowing the government has got its back, even when it screws up, only encourages BP to enter into further high-risk ventures. 

BP’s return to government contracting, even after to admitting to lying to Congress and prior to the court ruling as to whether it was grossly negligent in its operations, was as a result of a lawsuit BP filed against the U.S. claiming it was being unfairly penalized for the blowout. Within days after it was able to convince the EPA and Justice Department to arrive at a quick settlement, BP was back at the bidding table, suffering little more disadvantage than five years of some additional oversight.

This continued deference by the government to BP’s claims that it will change its ways is constantly rebutted by reality when spill after spill and accident after accident keep happening. It appears that BP knows how much it has the U.S. over a barrel (so to speak) given its dominance in the Gulf and in Alaska, in addition to its providing much of this nation’s defense fuels. This has allowed BP to remain primarily focused on maximizing profits while its ubiquitous PR machine keeps telling the public what we want to hear, thereby providing the social license for the government to continue to contract with BP despite its actual record.

Closer to home, a far less high profile, but no less troubling, example of BP’s undue influence over government decision-making persists. BP operates Washington state’s largest refinery at Cherry Point near Bellingham. It is the fourth largest on the West Coast. It was originally built by ARCO in the late 1970’s to receive supertankers and process Alaskan crude oil, then ship the refined product by pipeline to Midwest markets.  BP purchased the Cherry Point refinery as part of its various mergers around 2000. ARCO tried to complete the construction of a second refinery dock prior to the merger. Ocean Advocates, an organization I was involved with at the time, challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing them a permit without first conducting an environmental impact statement to evaluate the potential increased oil spill risks associated with forecast increases in tanker traffic.

Despite a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 directing the Corps to complete an EIS for construction of BP’s second oil tanker dock at its Cherry Point refinery, the Corps has yet to complete such a document, which typically takes two years at most. The Corps is also required to evaluate whether the use of the new tanker dock needs to have conditions imposed in order to comply with the 1977 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) made by Washington state’s late U.S. senator, Warren Magnuson. 

In the late 1970s, Magnuson took a series of steps to protect Washington’s waters from the increased risk of oil spills associated with the arrival of oil tankers from Alaska. These included restricting the size of tankers and the ability for marine terminals to handle additional volumes of crude oil east of Port Angeles. His logic was clear: He did not want the federal government to increase the risk of oil spills by encouraging oil tanker traffic where it gets increasing difficult to navigate in Puget Sound.

Unfortunately, despite Magnuson’s efforts all refineries in Washington are operating at twice their built capacity. BP’s Cherry Point refinery has increased tanker traffic an average of 10 ships per year following the construction of the new tanker dock. BP has had unmitigated use of second dock for the past nine years because the Corps still has not released the environmental impact statement.

While BP is likely in no rush to see the document released due to the risk of restrictions on the amount of activity or how the dock can be used, the fact that the Corps has been complicit in its delay is just one more example of BP’s inexcusable influence on government operations at the public’s expense.

This must all be part of BP’s newly branded “Commitment to America.” Long before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted campaign finance reforms, BP mastered the art of free speech where, not unlike Fox News, all it has had to do is repeat something enough times until the public believes it’s true. BP’s unabrogated carpet-bombing of the airwaves has made it painfully clear that money talks. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems all too willing to listen to BP’s greenwash.


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