A Fistful of Dollars: Understanding BP and the Gulf Disaster

By Nick Jans

BP’s catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one of those events so huge and far-reaching that it defies comprehension. For the past two months, a torrent of toxic crude oil has spewed into one of the richest marine environments on earth, causing incalculable harm and suffering to countless lives, animal and human. According to the most recent estimates by top scientists, the flow could be well over a million gallons a day. This spill may already qualify as the single largest human-caused environmental disaster in history. Considering that the only real hope is a relief well that might be completed by early August, and the oil will almost certainly spread up the coast of North America on the Gulf Stream and perhaps even reach Europe, the scope of this cataclysm has hardly been realized. It’s going to get much, much worse.

After she’d read and responded to a USA Today opinion piece I’d written on the spill, Priscilla Feral asked me to share some of my insights for Friends of Animals. As a longtime Alaskan who’s witnessed the deep and lingering damage done by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I’m afraid I can’t offer much good news. Two decades after our disaster, you can still dig down a few inches on some beaches and watch the hole fill with remarkably fresh-looking oil. Some species are recovering; others, like the herring runs that drove the rich ecosystem of Prince William Sound, may never return. The Sound’s killer whales are dwindling toward extinction.

I’m not offering these facts to depress you further. Knowing and owning the horrific truth about oil spills-a cost in animal and human suffering that dwarfs any dollar figure–is a necessary step toward understanding and action. And standing between us and that full truth, with all its faceless corporate might, is BP. If you’ve been watching CNN or following the AP news stories, you know that BP has made every attempt to shut down journalistic access at the raw front of the spill-the places where red strands of oil miles long smother coastal marshes, poisoning pelicans and turtles, crabs and fish; the public beaches where cleanup crews toil; the very epicenter of this environmental nightmare, where oil still gushes to the surface like a dark and perverse Niagara. BP doesn’t want you to see any of this. They’ve gone so far as to shut off air space over ground zero, to bar camera crews from filming oiled birds, and to forbid job-desperate spill workers from telling the media what they’ve seen or felt, on pain of being fired. Meanwhile, BP spokesmen speak sincerely and promise full transparency-an outright and ongoing lie so unbelievable that it’s baffling. But there is a sure and certain logic operating behind these actions.

While we might guess the British oil giant is worried about public opinion, that’s only so indirectly, and for the wrong reason. The main motive for BP’s clumsy attempts to hide the facts of the spill is much more basic. It’s all about the bottom line. As a mega-corporation, BP’s primary (indeed, only) loyalty lies with its stockholders-millions of people, from multi-billionaires to modest pensioners around the globe. And its strategy is dictated by the cold, amoral imperative of a calculator. Only money matters. Don’t expect the least flicker of conscience or morality from BP, any more than Alaskans could have expected (or received) from Exxon. Corporations don’t have a soul. Animals don’t matter. People don’t matter. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. All that counts is the price of a stock share. Each fraction of a penny up or down translates into millions of dollars, and it’s their duty to gather every last one.

From the early days of the spill, BP did all it could to under-report the size of the spill. A few days in, CEO Tony Hayward forecast the impact of the spill as “quite modest.” At first, company spokesmen claimed there was no oil leaking at all; then they suggested it could be a thousand barrels a day, and grudgingly upped it to five thousand. They claimed the flow of oil couldn’t really be calculated, and that it didn’t matter anyhow-a line echoed even by NOAA (the government agency in charge of measuring the size of the spill) and even by President Obama himself. From the early days of the crisis, independent, highly qualified scientists raised their eyebrows at these claims, and pointed out that even rough calculations and observations showed a far larger flow. Nearly two months later, many of these same scientists, gathered into a government commission, have confirmed that oil is gushing from the 21-inch diameter pipe at 14 to 20 thousand barrels per day-as much as a million gallons every 24 hours, and quite possibly much more. BP probably knew all this from day one. If they didn’t, they violated their own internal policy which dictates that determining the size of a spill is a vital first step to controlling it.

The truth is simple: every single gallon that can be proven to have spilled costs BP money. If negligence can be claimed by the federal government-and in this case, most likely it shall-under the terms of the Clean Water Act, each barrel of spilled oil might mean as much as $4300 peeled from BP’s coffers. At the current high end of estimated flow, this is $81.7 million just in spill fines per day; so far, more than $4 billion and counting.

The same sort of penalties hold true for wildlife. U.S. laws provide fines of up to $25,000 for each dead migratory bird, and the same for an animal on the endangered species list. Predictably, with BP in charge and controlling all media access and much of the rescue effort, the official body count of dead birds is below 200. But doubtless many thousands more, along with manatees, sea turtles, and other protected wildlife will be recovered, and many more will never be found.

The fact is, BP has every incentive for not recovering spilled oil or oiled birds (most of whom will die, and become liabilities). Each one means more money torn from its corporate wallet. We can’t trust BP to employ the best possible methods of clean-up or rescue, because doing so is counter to corporate interests. It (and I emphasize “it” rather than “they”) just wants the evidence to disappear into the depths of the gulf, and into the silence of the oily muck sloshing in remote coastal marshes. Each gallon vanished or creature not counted is money in the bank. That may sound ghastly, but it’s true. And understanding that grim accounting is key to understanding BP’s actions.

In the end, BP is probably no better or worse than any of the other giant oil corporations-Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, and so on-that together comprise, by far, the most profitable industry in the history of humankind. It’s easy to blame them, and well we should. But the truth is, we’re all at fault. The oil industry is just feeding our addiction, serving our self-imposed and self-destructive needs. If we salvage what we can from this awful moment, and summon up the collective will to begin weaning ourselves away from this toxic, life-smothering goo in which we’re drowning, maybe the creatures that are perishing in the Gulf won’t have died in vain. And somewhere along the way, perhaps we can save ourselves.

Award-winning Alaska writer Nick Jans is a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors and an advocate for wilderness and wildlife. His most recent book, The Glacier Wolf: True Stories of Life in Southeast Alaska, is available at nickjans.com