By Jason Plautz
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 2014follow-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.”