Writing the other day about BP being granted the right to bid for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico again reminded me of an odd article I wrote for the Huffington Post at the time of the spill. It wasn't that the article itself was odd, but the circumstances that followed from it.
The original article had come about when I was driving home from the San Fernando Valley and heard one of those Really Friendly radio ads from an oil company telling us how much it loved the environment and was doing oh-so much to support it. The oil company in question was BP, and this came weeks after it had caused one of the biggest oils spills in history, when oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and the company had no idea or serious plans on how to stop it. The best thing related to the ad was how impressed I was that I was able to control my car and not crash into a light post.
When I returned home, I started researching and writing an article on the subject and posted it on June 7, 2013. All fine and normal. What happened next though was when the oddity kicked it.
The Huffington Post received a letter from BP complaining about my article. My editor sent me a copy and asked if I wanted to write a response to it. (That might be the oddest thing of all, since I'm not convinced it would happen in these more corporate and bureaucratic days of HuffPo.) At first, I'd thought the editor would be upset or concerned, but I got the sense that mainly he was annoyed at BP and therefore gave me free rein in how I wanted to reply. My response was then appended to the end of the original article, but they again made a Featured Post.
In honor of BP's inglorious return to drilling in the gulf, here is that original article and the Update.
Sorry, BP, It Isn't That Easy Being Green
When out driving yesterday, I heard a radio spot that had me grinding my teeth. It was for BP, basically telling us all how wonderful and environmentally-friendly they are, including how they paid $23 billion to help clean up the Gulf of Mexico which is once again thriving today.
Forgetting for a moment whether everyone would agree that the Gulf was thriving (and by "everyone" I include fish and any sentient plants), you have to marvel at the gall of a company trying to portray the $23 billion it paid as showing how committed it is to the environment, rather than the reality that it was money the company was largely forced to pay as a penalty in a government settlement for its criminal acts and other medical and clean-up lawsuits.
This is made all the funnier (the polite word for "stomach-churning") when one remembers this news story from the New Orleans Times-Picayune a year ago, whose first sentence notes: "BP hopes the U.S. Justice Department will accept less than $15 billion to settle the government's civil and criminal claims for the 2010 Gulf oil spill...The amount BP is seeking is far shy of the $25 billion in fines and environmental damage claims the Justice Department wants."
The article goes on to note that "A $15 billion deal would bring BP's total bill for the spill to about $45 billion. It's already spent $23 billion on cleanup and private economic loss claims and estimates an economic and medical claims settlement will cost another $7.8 billion."
Another article by the paper that "a March study in the journal EcoHealth by Auburn University researchers found that tar balls washing up on beaches in Mississippi and Alabama contain Vibrio vulnificus bacteria at levels 10 times higher than in nearby sand and 100 times greater than in seawater" And then affectionately continues, "Vibrio is a source of rare infections that can cause life-threatening vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and dermatitis. It is transmitted by eating contaminated seafood or through open cuts." There's so much more, contrary to "thriving" (unless by "thriving" you mean the growth of bacteria and damage for decades to come), but there's only so much the fingers can type before they would explode.
For BP to claim that it's environmentally-friendly because it paid $23 billion in a government settlement that, in a small way, might start cleaning up a small part of the environmental disaster it caused, is like a mass murderer accepting a plea bargain for 50 years in prison rather than life without parole, and then claiming this shows he supports federal housing.
So, yes, the environmentally-friendly BP is right there for you, right up with the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Greenpeace and Al Capone.
In response to my piece below, the Huffington Post received an email from the good folks at BP.
I want to be completely fair to them -- because I believe in openness and honesty -- so let me quote directly from their note. In reference to my saying that BP was "largely forced to pay as a penalty [of $23 billion] in a government settlement for its criminal acts and other medical and clean-up lawsuits," they wrote:
"That's completely false - as Mr. Elisberg would have learned had he simply checked our website or contacted us for comment."
RJE NOTE: If I relied on what BP said on its website, there's a good chance that I'd believe the company is more environmentally friendly than the Sierra Club. But to be fair, let's allow BP to explain how what I wrote was completely false:
"In fact, the $23 billion Mr. Elisberg referenced (it's now $25 billion, by the way) is money BP has agreed to pay for response, cleanup, and claims by individuals, businesses and government entities - not money BP has paid as a penalty in a settlement with the US government."
RJE NOTE: My recollection was that the radio ad said $23 billion, but I didn't stop mid-traffic to jot a note. That would have caused a terrible accident, and we know happens when you cause an accident. But let's accept that the amount paid is now $25 billion. Kudos! Perhaps I remembered it wrong, or perhaps it simply went up $2 billion since making the ad. No matter. $25 billion, it is.
(By the way, I think when you acknowledge paying more money to clean up a disaster than someone suggested you did, that's actually a bad thing, because it means the damage was even worse than we thought.)
But as for the $25 billion that BP says it agreed to pay -- I am happy to acknowledge that the company did not pay that money in a court-ordered fine for any criminal conviction. BP is absolutely right. There was no legal penalty. Period. There was no legal crime. Period.
All there was, was just one of the biggest, most disastrous ecological disasters that the company caused. When I referred to that sort of "criminal act," it wasn't said as a lawyer, but I was simply using the kind of second definition of "crime" that my WordWeb defines as: "An evil act not necessarily punishable by law."
Happily, BP does agree that I was right about one thing. It appears that the main reason the BP oil spill wasn't punishable by law is because, as their letter states:
"Mr. Elisberg is correct that BP has agreed to pay fines and penalties in connection with its criminal plea agreement with the U.S. government, but that is not included in the $25 billion figure that is the subject of his post. As such, we submit, the entire premise of the piece is baseless."
RJE NOTE: So, as far as I can tell from the above, BP is acknowledging that they actually did pay fines and did pay penalties (penalties!) in connection with its "criminal plea" with the government.
Shockingly, what they paid isn't even part of the $25 billion I referred to -- but is in addition to!!
So, what in the world was that $25 billion that BP paid for? As they themselves wrote, it was merely:
"... for response, cleanup, and claims by individuals, business and government entities."
RJE NOTE: Ah. Okay. That's much better. It's because they paid off $25 billion in claims. Claims made by pretty much every one who was impacted by the gargantuan, massive oil spill. (Everyone except, perhaps, sea otters, who I'm guessing didn't collect anything directly.)
For the sake of argument, let's accept everything that BP wrote in its letter. That I was wrong in my phrasing. And for that, for the lack of clarity, I do apologize.
But seriously, this letter was just PR and legal gobbledygook. BP did not pay tens of billions and tens of billion and tens of billions and more billions and billions and billions of dollars out of the environmental goodness and volunteer kindness of their hearts.
They paid it because their actions caused devastation to the environment and, as a result, forced them to pay claims by individuals, business, government entities, and paid fines and penalties in connection with its criminal plea agreement with the U.S. government.
And everything else in the article, about the devastation that will impact the environment and health of people for decades to come -- I stand by all that, uncorrected.
But the money paid wasn't $23 billion. And it wasn't because they were convicted in court for any crime. It was $25 billion.
I apologize for being unclear.
There, I hope BP feels so much better now. I'm sure the sea otters are happier, too.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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