Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, May 20, 2010

BP and the Gulf Oil Spill: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

So today BP apparently admitted that far more oil is spilling into the Gulf than they have been estimating. Here's a link to the Associated Press article on the matter:

The question that will be on many people's minds will be to what degree BP has simply not been coming clean about the matter (pardon the pun). This brought to mind the following passage on the attempts at cover-up that came in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, from William Lutz's 1996 book The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone's Saying Anymore:

When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit the rocks in Prince William Sound in Alaska, a lot more than crude oil flowed. Faced with such a monumental environmental disaster, the folks at Exxon swallowed hard, bit the bullet, and proceeded to clean everything up with doublespeak.

As the residents complained of polluted beaches and the slow to nonexistent cleanup, the executives at Exxon were calling almost thirty-five miles of beaches in Alaska "environmentally clean" and "environmentally stabilized." but then maybe they never bothered to actually visit the beaches and look at them. Paul Nussbaum, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, did walk on the beaches that had been declared clean or stabilized and found that they were "still covered with oil. They glisten in the sun, slick with crude. Wipe any stone and come away with a handful of oil. Beneath each rock is a pool of uncollected sludge. In the shallow pools created by the outgoing tide, minnow-sized fish swim beneath rainbows of oil sheen." The reporter for Newsweek magazine walked the same beaches and found "the rocks were gritty, sticky and dark brown. Droplets of spray formed beads on the surface, as they would on waxed paper." But that didn't bother Otto Harrison, Exxon's general manager of the Valdez cleanup operations, because he had a whole new definition of the word "clean": Clean "doesn't mean every oil stain is off every rock.... It means that the natural inhabitants can live there without harm." In a twelve-minute film shown during the Exxon shareholders' meeting, the narrator of the film described the Prince William shoreline as "the so-called beaches, mainly piles of dark, volcanic rock." In its press releases, Exxon stopped referring to the beaches as being "cleaned" but called them "treated."

This is a very effective form of doublespeak. Exxon has simply redefined a common word and used it the way it wants to. (pp. 134-135)

Complete "transparency" (the word in vogue these days) from either the U.S. government or BP in this situation is probably too much to expect. More than likely, the coming months will see the doublespeak flowing about as freely as the oil is now, just as in the Exxon Valdez spill. Of course, that will be, for both parties involved in the current crisis, just business as usual.


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