In a recent discussion on this blog, an interesting thread appeared: the idea that BP’s heavy use of chemical dispersants to break up the Gulf oil spill was as much damage cover up as damage control.
Here are a few examples:
My suspicion is that the main reason they used these dispersants was to hide the oil from view…. Anything that will keep the oil out of site below the surface allows them a certain measure of plausible deniability regarding their knowledge of the spills true magnitude.
I think there is a big effort on the part of BP to minimize the aesthetic and visual impact of the spill
That makes sense, especially when you consider that they’re now spreading the dispersant directly into the plume underwater. That way the oil won’t even reach the surface.
The readers of this blog aren’t the only ones rather pointedly raising this question. Environmental groups have done the same. This comment comes from Natural Resources Defense Council staff blogger Regan Nelson: By dispersing oil into deeper waters, away from human eyes, dispersants can also have the welcome public relations effect of making the spill appear smaller.
Or consider this one from Protect the Ocean: Dispersal of the oil does not eliminate it, nor does it decrease the toxicity of the oil. It just breaks it up into small particles, where it becomes less visible. It’s still there, spewing toxicity at an even greater rate (due to higher surface area.)
This week, government scientists acknowledged that BP’s public estimate of a 5,000 barrel a day leak was such a massive underestimate that it might have been closer to, um, 20,000 barrels a day. That rather than 11 million gallons of oil so far leaked that it could be 40 million gallons. And that most of that oil appears to be – surprise – under the surface.
So is BP’s heavy use of dispersants – close to a million gallons so far – protecting the environment or protecting an oil company’s image – and limiting potential liability?
One of the other discussants earlier this week, made the point that chemical dispersants offer a biological trade off, killing more species out in deep waters versus allowing more oil to wreck the delicate coastal breeding grounds and wildlife habitats as oil oozes ashore in a smothering blanket.
If the oil is dispersed, less will get to the fish and shrimp, more to the smaller critters further down the food chain which live in the deeper water. It’s an ugly bargain, but I’m not quite as cynical as some of the other commenters who attribute it all to aesthetics for the sake of PR.
And he’s right about that balancing act. There are a host of good reasons to try to limit the amount of oil reaching the coastline. The EPA has a list of some dozen approved dispersants because these have been used before, by companies other than BP, to reduce the amount of crude oil coming ashore. Certainly environmental regulators haven’t argued against its use in this case.
But it’s not entirely cynical to believe that BP has a mixture of motives playing out here. We could add in this one as well: the fact that U.S. regulations allow the federal government to fine $1,000 to $4,300 per gallon spilled into our waters.
So me? My cynicism levels have been increasing daily. By the barrel, in fact.