The Battle to Control the Story—and Science—of the Deepwater Horizon Catastrophe

BP argues the impact of the spill was short-lived. Conservation groups disagree, but the answer may not be known for years.

Oil-covered brown pelicans found off the Louisiana coast affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Photo: Loeb/Getty Images)

Oct 30, 2014· 4 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

BP has a message for you: The impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill wasn’t as bad as environmental groups and the media originally predicted it would be. “The damage was of short duration and confined to a limited geographic area,” BP senior vice president Geoff Morrell said during a speech at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference last month in New Orleans. “We haven’t seen any evidence that there are long-lasting impacts that would result in population-level changes to any particular species.”

Among the claims Morrell made during his speechand reiterated last week in an opinion piece in Politico: The Gulf of Mexico is “inherently resilient”; the shrimp catch has returned to pre-spill levels; oyster populations are down but only because of factors unrelated to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Also: Undersea microbes digested much of the spilled oil; just three coral reefs “the size of one or two tennis courts” were damaged; and the oil did not, as published science has suggested, damage the hearts of tuna. Perhaps most important, Morrell accused advocacy groups of “cherry-picking” facts.

The salvo is just the latest in an escalating fight over what the science says about the long-term impact of the United States’ biggest oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico—on corals, sea turtles, dolphins, oysters, and other marine life that’s the lifeblood of the region. At stake, of course, is the Gulf’s future and billions of dollars.

Which side is right? The battle to answer that question is being fought every day as new science about the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill emerges. The problem is, so little data has been published that it’s almost impossible to precisely define the short- or long-term effects. (The Deepwater Horizon disaster and its aftermath is the subject of The Great Invisible, a documentary that premiered on Oct. 29 and was produced by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.)

Although at least 15,000 scientific papers have been published about or have mentioned the Deepwater Horizon spill, that reflects only a fraction of the total research conducted so far. Until litigation is resolved and a federal assessment of the spill is completed, most of the data related to the disaster is effectively hidden to researchers, the public, and even to BP.

“It probably goes without saying that BP has a vested interest in minimizing their damage, both financially and from a public relations standpoint,” said Raleigh Hoke, communications director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

Morrell delivered his speech in New Orleans one day before a federal judge found BP “grossly negligent” in the disaster and said the company could face up to $18 billion in fines. The company is appealing the ruling.

Why did Morrell come to speak to environmental journalists and then run the opinion piece in Politico? Kara Lankford, interim director of the Gulf Restoration Program at Ocean Conservancy, put it simply in a response piece, also published in Politico. “BP is far from being off the hook,” she wrote. “The company still owes billions of dollars in fines and natural resource damages for the oil discharged and resulting harm to the Gulf, and it is too convenient and much too early for the company to declare the Gulf fully recovered.”

Morrell’s Politico piece failed to repeat the claim about tuna hearts not being damaged by Deepwater Horizon oil. That may be because a second study—published just days after his New Orleans speech—validated the first study and found similar damage in a species called killifish. One of the authors of that study told Newsweek that he wasn’t surprised by the attempt to discount the tuna study because the same thing had been tried with his earlier research. “It’s the M.O. of big business to try and hire guns to attack science wherever and whenever they can,” said Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Davis.

Some of the disaster’s effects may just be starting to emerge. Hoke points to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska as an example. One of the biggest impacts of that spill, he said, was that herring populations in Alaska’s Prince William Sound crashed in 1993, four years after the spill. “That’s about the mark where we are here in the Gulf.”

How long will it take to determine those long-term effects? Part of that answer depends on when the data becomes available to the public. Much of the research following the spill has been conducted under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is trying to determine BP’s liability under the Oil Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act, and other laws through a process called Natural Resource Damage Assessment. “The NRDA is the mechanism that is carried out to assess what the damage was, what the impact was, and what needs to be done to correct it,” said BP spokesman Jason Ryan, who declined to comment on critics’ contention that the company has tried to discount the long-term environmental consequences of the disaster.

The same procedure was used after the Exxon Valdez spill, which remains the subject of active litigation 25 years later.

Time is also an important factor. Michael Blum, director of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research in New Orleans, said his research into the effects of the oil spill on coastal marshes could last 30 years.

“These are biological systems,” he said. “They tend to drift, whether it’s seasonal or daily.” Understanding this variability, he says, requires many observations over an extended period of time.

In contrast, Blum said that much of the work that has been published to date presents more of a snapshot of damage than short- or long-term trends. He said if he were designing a new scientific experiment today—rather than in the rush after the Deepwater Horizon spill—it would take at least a year to establish the logistics of the project and five years or more to collect the data. “If you have the opportunity, you don’t base your work on a single go-around,” he said.

Blum’s research—like most of the work being conducted in the Gulf—is partially, if indirectly, funded by BP. The company put $500 million into the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative in 2010 to pay for independent research into the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. This has led many to question whether BP is unduly influencing the published science. As early as 2010, reports emerged that BP tried to directly hire top marine scientists under strict confidentiality agreements. In 2011, Greenpeace uncovered documents of BP officials discussing whether or not they could influence what types of projects GoMRI funded.

Although Blum said he and other scientists originally looked at GoMRI funding with skepticism, the initiative’s work is “very respectable.” He equated the grant process with that of the National Science Foundation, which has rigorous competition and peer review standards. “There’s no constraint,” Blum said. “There’s no concern about the access and publication of data through those funds.”

Hoke agreed that the scientists being funded by GoMRI are “doing a great job” but said “we need to remain vigilant and make sure there isn’t any bias in the research.”

He also said it is important to continue conducting research and collecting data, even if it takes years for it all to be published: “It’s very important that we continue to document these impacts and that the science comes out.” That, he said, is the only way to make sure that BP is held accountable for the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Indeed, the science about the spill is continuing to emerge. A study released this week discovered that some of the 84 million gallons of oil from the spill that had not been accounted for ended up on the ocean floor and likely rained down on delicate corals. BP attempted to discount the study.