TV Reporters Shoot Down BP's Misleading PR Campaign

But Media Shouldn't Forget Factors That Could Lead To Next Big Spill

BP oil

On the five-year anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, television reporters detailed the devastating environmental and economic impacts still facing the Gulf Coast region today, and directly rebutted BP's misleading spin. But they should not lose sight of another equally-important part of the story: how increasingly risky and expansive offshore drilling practices, along with insufficient oversight, could lead to another major spill.

BP is trying very hard to convince the world that the Gulf of Mexico has recovered from the oil well explosion that killed 11 workers and devastated the region's ecosystem and economy -- but television reporters spent the five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster picking apart BP's claims. MSNBC's Chris Hayes asserted: “As much as BP wants you to think it's all better, it's really not.” NBC's Kerry Sanders called out BP's misleading advertisements on Today, rebutting BP's claim that “seafood catches are back to pre-spill levels” by reporting that Louisiana oyster harvest levels have actually decreased by nearly 25 percent. Fox News' Shepard Smith lambasted BP's public relations campaign -- recalling his past criticism of BP, which stood in stark contrast to the rest of the network's BP-friendly coverage in the aftermath of the spill. Smith teased a segment on his show by asking rhetorically: “Five years later you see the BP commercials, everything is great. Right?” He then answered his own question, detailing the tourism and wildlife damages that still exist, and concluding: “Five years later, this ain't over.”

It's encouraging to see media figures debunk BP's misleading public relations campaign, which comes as the company seeks to reduce the up to $13.7 billion in Clean Water Act fines it faces if a federal judge r efuses to reconsider a ruling that BP was “grossly negligent” in its handling of the disaster.

But the media should continue to explore the many reasons that offshore drilling still poses immense, inherent risks. 

Oil companies are venturing into increasingly risky territories within the Gulf of Mexico at a significant rate. InsideClimateNews reported that oil companies have leased nine million acres in the Gulf since 2010, reflecting “the industry's push into deeper and riskier waters far offshore.” Outside the Gulf, companies are looking to drill in the extremely inhospitable Arctic Ocean, which poses unique risks, and the Interior Department has proposed allowing drilling off the Atlantic coast of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Meanwhile, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, oil and gas drilling workers are dying from work-related incidents at a rate seven times greater than the average worker in the United States.

Up to this point, safety improvements to offshore drilling practices have been few and far between, largely because Congress failed to pass the safety recommendations from the federal oil spill commission report -- or any other piece of legislation on drilling safety. The Interior Department recently proposed new offshore drilling regulations, but companies will have three to seven years to comply with the rule. The Associated Press relayed critics' concern that recent improvements may be inadequate because “engineering advances in drilling have far outpaced developments in safety and response technology.” As the Natural Resources Defense Council recently put it: “The government has made some meaningful, if measured, progress in reducing drilling's risks, but far more must be done.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, environmental Attorney Stuart Smith expanded further on the safety efforts that have failed to come to fruition:

Congress -- controlled by Republican lawmakers indebted to their Big Oil campaign contributors -- still has not enacted the offshore-drilling safety measures recommended by the president's Oil Spill Commission. It has not given strong regulatory powers to the agency that replaced the scandal-scarred Minerals Management Service. And it has not raised the ridiculously low cap of $75 million for corporate liability on major spills.

Congress has also failed to make money available for an oil-spill research fund. A proposed “safety institute” hasn't materialized. Neither has the new training center for federal regulators, meant to help them carry out more rigorous inspections of offshore rigs.

One week before the BP disaster's five-year anniversary, CNN aired a special report titled “Blowout: The Gulf Oil Disaster.” Richard Lazarus, Executive Director of the national Oil Spill Commission Report, lamented to CNN that “Congress has passed not one word of legislation to make any effort to go after and reduce the risk.” And Juliette Kayyem, who oversaw the Obama administration's response efforts, said another oil disaster “could happen again. I mean, absolutely.”

It's a positive sign that the media is setting the record straight on what happened in the Gulf five years ago. But more good reporting is needed to ensure that more is done to prevent the next disaster.