In early March a 30,000-pound mat of oily gunk washed up on East Grand Terre, a barrier island in the mouth of Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. It was an ugly reminder of the blowout at BP’s Macondo well, a disaster that spewed millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico starting on April 20, 2010. As BP crews collected the muck, the company issued a five-year report, Environmental Recovery and Restoration, stressing that the spill didn’t do lasting damage to the ecosystem. The 40-page report described the deleterious effects as “limited in space and time, mostly in the area very close to the wellhead.” BP’s U.S. spokesman, Geoff Morrell, told reporters that the state exacerbated contamination on East Grand Terre with a 2010 beach-replenishment initiative that wound up “burying the oil under layers of sand.”
Louisiana officials saw it otherwise. “Oh, yeah, this is absolutely our fault,” Kyle Graham, executive director of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, responded sarcastically during a March 19 interview with WWLTV in New Orleans. “And the dead baby dolphin y’all saw out there was the dolphin’s fault.” Graham went on to give voice to the pessimism of politicians and environmentalists who found BP’s report incredible: “They actually believe that the Gulf, that the actions they’ve done in response, have healed the Gulf, and that all of the decades’ worth of knowledge about the effects of oil on these natural environments—the likelihood that these effects will last for generations—isn’t true.
A more dispassionate account of the spill’s legacy would emphasize several contrasting but not contradictory realities. Independent investigations and court rulings have blamed the intertwined negligence of BP and its contractors, Transocean and Halliburton, for the debacle, which killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. A federal judge found that the spill released 3.19 million barrels of crude. The corporate actors—chiefly BP, the majority owner of Macondo—deserved condemnation and got it. Yet as bad as the environmental and economic damage was, the recovery has been remarkable, in large part because of luck.
Beginning more than a century ago with John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic ambitions at Standard Oil, the petroleum industry has earned popular distrust. In the 2000s, BP launched a disingenuous “Beyond Petroleum” greenwashing campaign, long since abandoned. The company’s singularly poor safety record made things worse. A 2005 explosion at its Texas City Refinery killed 15 people and injured 170. BP pleaded guilty to a felony violation of federal environmental law and paid a $50 million fine. The next year, a BP pipeline rupture in Prudhoe Bay caused one of the largest spills in Alaska’s North Slope. The 87 days in 2010 when Macondo released its murky contents—much of it under the watchful eye of a televised “spill cam”—intensified disillusionment with the British-based company. Oil besmirched 1,100 of the 16,000 miles of Gulf coastline. Birds, fish, shrimp, and oysters died in droves. Maritime and tourist businesses shut down, some for months, some forever.
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