British Petroleum (BP) has admitted it may not stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico until August — at the earliest. But despite the catastrophe, the US government’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has given BP new leases for deepwater drilling.
The MMS has rubber-stamped 198 new deepwater drilling leases in the gulf since the BP spill began on April 20. It awarded BP 13 of these.
Southern Environmental Law Centre’s Deb Carter said on June 11: “MMS quietly granted oil companies the right to drill 198 more deepwater wells as if the spill wasn’t devastating the gulf.”
The centre has launched a legal challenge to the leases. It says the MMS has not required the oil companies to adhere to any new environmental safeguards or greater supervision.
“If it’s too deep to stop a spill, it’s too deep to drill”, Carter said. “BP is under criminal investigation for its explosion and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, yet MMS approved 13 new leases for BP to drill in deepwater without any better oversight.”
Soon after the spill occurred, US President Barack Obama promised he would take action to reform the MMS and place a moratorium on new deepwater drilling.
But most top MMS officials remain at their posts, despite recent government reports that MMS staff in Louisiana regularly accept gifts from oil and gas companies.
Meanwhile, a June 8 article by Rolling Stone magazine’s Tim Dickinson explained why Obama’s moratorium was a fake.
“The ‘moratorium’ on drilling announced by the president does little to prevent future disasters”, he said. “The ban halts exploratory drilling at only 33 deepwater operations, shutting down less than 1% of the total wells in the gulf.”
New evidence has also emerged that the US government and BP have repeatedly understated the size of the spill. For weeks, the government and BP denied claims that the spill was bigger than 5000 barrels a day.
But by late May, government scientists upped the estimate to 12,000-19,000 barrels. On June 10, they raised the figure again to 20,000-40,000 barrels a day, Bloomberg said.
Yet Timothy Crane, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University, told Rolling Stone the government had held back the scientists’ higher estimates.
“The upper bound from the [government’s oil] plume group, if it had come out, is very high”, said Crone. “That's why they had resistance internally. We're talking 100,000 barrels a day.”
That’s an amount equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster in the gulf every two-and-a-half days.
The disaster has been made much worse by BP’s failure to prepare for an accident.
A May 25 study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed that BP’s Oil Spill Response Plan included no “information about tracking sub-surface oil plumes from deepwater blowouts” or “any oceanographic or meteorological information”.
The plan did mention protecting sea lions, seals, sea otters and walruses — none of which exist within thousands of kilometers of the Gulf of Mexico.
“This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on”, said marine professor and PEER board member Rick Steiner. “Incredibly, this [600 page] document never once discusses how to stop a deep water blowout.”
However, people browsing the internet are now less likely to find this kind of information, and more likely to be redirected to BP’s official website.
As part of its aggressive bid to control the media message, BP has bought the rights to phrases such as “oil spill” on the search engines Google and Yahoo, said Reuters on June 9. It means the BP website appears at the top of the news search results.
The company cut costs on safety measures and on its oil spill response plans, but it has spent at least US$60 million on advertising itself since the oil crisis began.
Furthermore, BP, with the help of the US federal agencies, has also prevented journalists from reporting on the clean-up operations. The Huffington Post said on June 11 that the government has banned flights over parts of the giant oil slick, including over some of the coastal islands affected.
The Post also said BP was collecting and destroying carcasses of dead birds, to prevent autopsies being carried out. The oil company has stopped journalists taking photos of beach clean-up sites. Workers employed by BP to help with the cleanup effort have been banned from talking to reporters.
BP has offered to employ fisher people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the spill. The only catch: speak to the press and you get the sack.
Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman spoke to Louisiana fisherman Glenn Swift on June 11. He confirmed the contract he had signed with BP included a clause that said “it’s grounds for termination of employment” if he spoke to the media.
Swift said he felt he had to speak out anyway: “I don’t feel it’s the right thing to shut somebody up, you know, just because you’re working for them. We’re supposed to live in the United States, and we’re supposed to have freedom of speech.”
BP’s push to control information about the oil leak has even extended to the popular Twitter parody, BPGlobalPR.
The mock account has more than 160,000 followers, about 16 times the size of BP’s company account.
Its recent tweets include: “DO NOT ask your reps to support Clean Energy. Buying their votes back will take a lot of money away from the cleanup effort” and, "If you want to help clean up drive your cars fast and often. Let's melt those glaciers and dilute this mess!"
The June 9 New York Times said BP demanded that Twitter change the account to specify that it is a parody.
In response, the anonymous owner of BPGlobalPR posted: “We are not associated with Beyond Petroleum, the company that has been destroying the Gulf of Mexico for 51 days.”
Another recent tweet declared: “Investing a lot of time & money into cleaning up our image, but the beaches are next on the to-do list for sure.”