FLASHBACK: Media advanced falsehood that drilling is safe because no oil spilled during Hurricane Katrina

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In the wake of the catastrophic oil spill currently occurring in the Gulf of Mexico after a rig exploded and sank, Media Matters reviews how media figures advanced the false talking point that oil drilling is environmentally safe because "not one drop of oil was spilled" during Hurricane Katrina.

NOW: Massive oil spill discharging 5,000 barrels/day into Gulf of Mexico

Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded without warning, then sank. On April 21, an explosion occurred on the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, located 41 miles off the cost of Louisiana, causing an onboard fire that the Coast Guard referred to as a "catastrophic event." Adrian Rose, a vice president for Transocean Ltd., which owns the rig, reportedly stated, "Before the blast, there was 'no indication of any problems' as crew members carried out routine work around the drill site." On April 22, the rig sank.

Coast Guard: 5,000 barrels of crude oil spilling per day. On April 29, BBC reported: "Five times as much oil as previously thought could be leaking from the well beneath where a rig exploded and sank last week, the US Coast Guard says. Rear Admiral Mary Landry said some 5,000 barrels a day were thought to be gushing into the sea 50 miles (80km) off Louisiana's coast."

Expert: Deepwater Horizon spill "may become the biggest oil spill ever." BBC further reported that Mike Miller, chairman of the oilfield firefighting company Safety Boss, "said the disaster may become the biggest oil spill ever," and quoted him saying, "Probably the only thing comparable to this is the Kuwait fires [following the Gulf War in 1991] (brackets in original). The Exxon Valdez is going to pale in comparison to this as it goes on."

Stopping the flow of oil reportedly may take months. BBC further reported: "Engineers are working on a dome-like device to cover oil rising to the surface and pump it to container vessels, but it may be weeks before this is in place. It is feared that work on sealing the leaking well using robotic submersibles might take months. BP is also working on a 'relief well' to intersect the original well, but this is experimental and could take two to three months to stop the flow."

Spill threatens local wildlife, billion-dollar fishing, tourism industries. On April 29, Bloomberg News reported, "Billions of dollars generated by outdoor sports, commercial fishing and beach tourism along the Gulf of Mexico coast is at risk if crude oil leaking from a damaged offshore well washes aground." Bloomberg further reported:

The oil spill off Louisiana's coast from a well owned by BP Plc may threaten wildlife, and seafood production in a state known as "Sportsman's Paradise," as well as in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida or Texas, said Robert Shipp, chairman of the department of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama.

"If this thing really gets to the coast, to those sugar- white beaches from Gulf Shores, Alabama to Panama City, Florida, that would be just a horrible disaster," Shipp said in an interview.

The magnitude of the problem for fish and wildlife depends on how long the well continues to leak oil and where and when it touches land, said Karen Foote, marine fisheries division administrator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Yesterday, the U.S. Coast Guard said the well was leaking five times faster than it previously thought, spewing 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf.

Shifting winds were expected to begin pushing oil ashore in Louisiana as soon as tomorrow evening, bringing tar balls and mousse-like globs of emulsified oil, Charlie Henry, the U.S. government's lead forecaster for the spill, said April 27. The spill at that time was 16 miles off shore and 600 miles in circumference, or roughly twice the land area of Maryland.

Foote said marshes may suffer long-term damage from the oil spill. The Louisiana coast includes 3 million acres of wetlands that serve as a nursery for game fish such as speckled trout and red drum, and are currently nurturing the brown shrimp crop to be harvested by the state's fishing fleet.

THEN: Media pushed false talking point that drilling is safe because no oil spilled during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita

Fox's O'Reilly: "[Y]ou've got technology that will prevent pollution," "when Katrina hit, none of the oil rigs spilled in Louisiana." While discussing offshore oil drilling with a caller on the July 9, 2008, edition of Westwood One's The Radio Factor, host Bill O'Reilly stated, "[Y]ou have to have a sane environmental policy when it's 25 miles offshore that no one'll see and you've got technology that will prevent pollution." He added, "Remember when Katrina hit, none of the oil rigs spilled in Louisiana. So we have the technology."

Fox's Huckabee: "not one drop of oil was spilled" during Hurricane Katrina, offshore drilling "extraordinarily safe." During the June 27, 2008, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, contributor Mike Huckabee stated: "When Katrina, a Cat-5 hurricane, hit the Gulf Coast, not one drop of oil was spilled off of those rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. So we know that the technology to drill offshore is extraordinarily safe and environmentally friendly. And it's not something that we have to be as worried about as we do a refinery on shore or some other type of issue."

CNN's Velshi: Rigs "seal[ed]" to prevent oil from leaking during storms, which succeeded during Katrina. During the August 31, 2008, edition of CNN Newsroom, senior business correspondent Ali Velshi stated that Hurricane Gustav is "is tracking toward this area, and there's a lot of concern about what's going to happen to oil facilities," and that "before they evacuate those rigs, they have to seal them down completely so that if the rigs are damaged or blown off their moorings, no oil will flow into the Gulf of Mexico." He added: "In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 40 of these platforms, but still no oil shed into the Gulf of Mexico because of that."

MSNBC's Mitchell repeatedly let guests suggest purported lack of spills indicated drilling was safe. On the June 24, 2008, edition of MSNBC Live, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell stated that Sen. John McCain was "pushing his energy plan in Santa Barbara, but protestors won't let the senator forget about the massive 1969 oil spill that city suffered from a leak at the same type of offshore drills that John McCain is now supporting." In an interview with Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), she then allowed him to claim that "technology has changed since 1969. It can take a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf that really came twice, and the technology made sure that there wasn't a drop that was spilled in the Gulf."

Lott, Breaux use Katrina falsehood to suggest new technology makes drilling environmentally safe. On the July 15, 2008, edition of MSNBC Live, energy industry lobbyist John Breaux claimed that "You can develop all natural, domestic resources here in the United States, and it can be done safely. The last spill they talk about was in 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill. Technology is totally different." His partner, Trent Lott, added "We didn't have one drop of oil spilt when we had the biggest hurricane in, you know, recent history, Hurricane Katrina."

Fox's Cavuto allows Bachmann to push back against dangers of oil spills with Katrina canard. During the September 1, 2008, edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto and Rep. Michelle Bachmann had the following exchange:

CAVUTO: All right, so, you know what they're going to say, that a bad -- "We're one bad storm away from a lot of rigs getting knocked to smithereens and oil spilling all over the place, and now the Republicans want to push this too much. Bad, bad, bad."

BACHMANN: No, no, no. It's nonsense, because if you want to talk about a bad hurricane, it's Katrina. We didn't have any spillage whatsoever from the oil rigs during Katrina.

CAVUTO: They're saying, "We lucked out; a [Category] 4 or 5 storm -- Katie, bar the door."

BACHMANN: Hey, isn't that great? Isn't that great that we did? I don't think it's luck. I think it's the fact of American ingenuity and technology. We know how to do things, and our companies have done a wonderful job making sure that we are both environmentally sound, but also able to produce the energy that America needs.

Fox's Jarrett advances claim that Katrina example indicates that drilling can be done in a way that protects the environment. On the July 30, 2008, edition of Fox News' Happening Now, co-host Gregg Jarrett asked then-Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, "[Y]ou're an engineer by background. Has technology improved so dramatically that drilling can now be done in a way that protects the environment?" He then allowed Bodman to reply, "I believe that it can. When we had Katrina and Rita, the two worst hurricanes in at least in recent memory, in '05, some three years ago, there was not one case where we had a -- a situation with oil or gas being spilled in the environment."

In fact, Hurricanes Rita and Katrina spilled nearly 17,700 barrels of petroleum products

Report for federal agency: Hurricanes caused 127 spills, total volume of nearly 17,700 barrels. According to a 2007 report prepared for the U.S. Minerals Management Service by the international consulting firm Det Norske Veritas, due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "124 [oil] spills were reported with a total volume of roughly 17,700 barrels of total petroleum products," including more than 10,000 barrels from platforms and rigs alone. The report further noted that "about 13,200 barrels were crude oil and condensate from platforms, rigs and pipelines, and 4,500 barrels were refined products from platforms and rigs."

The report included the following chart of oil spill statistics for damage to Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) structures related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Oil spill data

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