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BP greenwashes as climate dangers grow

Posted May. 17, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

BP's careful control of image hides a record that should be alarming

With spring fully sprung and another Earth Day past, it is critical the public stay alert to corporations that wrap themselves in a green patina while acting to the contrary. King among the “green-washers” is British Petroleum, BP -- going as far as to assert to having gone “Beyond Petroleum.”

In future years -- on future Earth Days -- BP should forever be associated with this nation’s largest oil spill, caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. While the Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20 three years ago, it was not until two days -- Earth Day -- later that a five-mile slick was reported. That was attributed only to the 700,000 gallons of fuel carried on the rig at the time. It wasn’t until April 25 that a gusher over a mile subsurface was revealed.

Spill rate estimates grew from 40,000 gallons per hour to 200,000 gallons as data became available to conduct independent estimates. It took three months to “kill” the well, but not before more than 210 million gallons were “spilled” and numerous fish and wildlife were killed, along with the 11 crew members that died. BP added an additional 2 million gallons of dispersants at depth and on surface in an unprecedented ecological experiment to minimize surface manifestations.

Unlike the numerous iconic images of the Exxon Valdez spill that has remained in the public eye and consciousness for the past 24 years, BP masterfully controlled broadcast and Internet coverage of the Deepwater disaster, downplaying the impacts while restricting the ability of reporters to provide independent documentation. As a result of this and domination of the electronic and print media, the legal hearings to determine the degree of BP’s culpability in the Gulf of Mexico debacle concluded last month in Louisiana with little notice.

BP has spent millions attempting to counterfeit green credentials, while we sweat it out during this perilous time in the earth’s history. Whether it intentionally withheld flow rate information in the early days of the explosion -- just one of the many issues BP is being tried for in an apparent attempt to reduce its liability -- or not, its actions serve as a teachable moment for a world where carbon dioxide levels have just reached a critical point. BP should come to epitomize the term “green washing” in order to prevent its singular moment in our nation’s fossil fuel dependency from succumbing to a corporate barrage of bluster and slipping silently beneath the waves of public awareness.

While the world worries about carbon levels, BP recently announced a halt to its solar program, the very program behind the change to its current sun-inspired corporate logo. BP is now heavily invested in the highest carbon content tar sand-derived oil, for which it pays nothing into state or federal response accounts because the federal government does not consider it to be “oil.” Washington State does not tax oil entering the state by pipeline or rail, despite the risks posed.

By overlaying a self-righteous, green façade on the British company's aggressive corporate acquisitions in the United States, BP’s “Astroturf” campaign effectively deflected attention and regulatory scrutiny at a critical time in its expansion. Not to mention the short-term profit-taking the mergers afforded.

During this time, BP was on probation not only for serious accidents it had in Texas and Alaska, but for manipulation of the propane market. This manipulation was documented by Jeanne Pascal, the former EPA Region X officer assigned to BP in Seattle in ProPublica reporter Abraham Lustgarten’s excellent book, Run to Failure. Pascal's views need to be heard during this critical time. At least, we must find out what happened to the file she was about to present regarding EPA’s debarment of BP from federal contracts before her abrupt retirement. Since retiring, she has been quoted expressing dismay as to how the Department of Defense had interfered with her investigations.

The public needs to distinguish between corporations walking the walk vs. talking the talk. This is especially true now as we hear promises from the proponents of an unprecedented cavalcade of coal, tar sand and shale oil export proposals through Northwest rails and waterways. Not since the late 1970s, when Washington refineries switched from crude supplied by pipeline from Alberta to tankers from Alaska, has there been a bigger risk increase of a major oil spill besmirching our region.

While we have heard many government officials and industry representatives praise BP’s willingness to spend enormous sums of money in response to the Gulf gusher, BP has a long reputation of being pound-foolish when it comes to preventative maintenance. This tendency is documented in "Run to Failure." What may be lost on those willing to praise BP's cleanup efforts is the fact that the company has so much to lose as the nation’s largest offshore oil leaseholder and provider of defense fuels. (There still is some question as to how much its insurance will cover what it will be able to deduct from its taxes).

“Despite BP’s slick ad campaigns, the Gulf is still hurting and can’t wait any longer for restoration,” Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, recently told Grist. She reminded us that two years ago BP promised to spend $1 billion on early restoration, to be used in two years. To date, BP has spent a mere 7 percent of the promised total. "It’s time BP be held fully accountable under the law,” she said.

It is equally important that the United States stop giving the company taxpayer dollars as long as BP continues to use them irresponsibly. Since much of the evidence of the spill’s impacts are tied up in litigation and the impacts on the lower food chain will not be immediately apparent, an adequate fund should be created to monitor the toxological impacts and habitat restoration efforts for at least a decade. At the same time, it is critical that the Obama Administration phase BP off the government dole and diversify with less recidivist energy providers, to operate reliably on our public lands and through our waters and could be depended on for defense fuels.

Regardless of who provides our nation with these filthy fuels, they will spill havoc on our waters and wreck our climate if we continue to subsidize their combustion. Time to tax carbon and sing, “Here Comes the Sun” in the manner of Richie Havens, who ironically died on Earth Day: Like we mean it. And unlike BP's supposed commitment to solar and other forms of clean energy.

This post was originally posted on Crosscut.com on May 12, 2013.

Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard, Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

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