Cheery Energy Ads? Look Out!

I force myself to listen. Believe me, it’s not easy. The mute button is right there, and I could spare myself the indignity. And yet I grit my teeth, and listen to the peppy music, watch the smiling faces, and follow the actors portraying happy American energy workers telling us how good it all is.

Of course, we’re talking about those oil, gas and coal ads that permeate the news-hour airwaves. First, it was the “Clean Coal” people touting a carbon-capture technology (that actually didn’t exist at operational scale). Then it was ExxonMobil telling us how clean their Canadian tar sands operations were (I’ve been there, and the scale of pollution is terrifying). Next came the natural gas people telling us how smart and safe it is for America to inject toxic chemicals below our aquifers in the current fracking boom. And permeating them all, that lovely promise of jobs, jobs and more jobs.

And finally, there is BP.

BP, those wonderful people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re still not finished blanketing the airwaves with those “Look! All better!” ads. “Today the beaches and Gulf are open for business,” says the narrator, “and many areas are reporting the best tourism season in years!”

Maybe we’ll forget that in May 2010, BP fouled much of the immense Gulf of Mexico, in the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, killing eleven workers and opening a deep-water oil gusher that flowed unabated for 87 days. An estimated 219 million gallons of oil escaped into the Gulf waters, followed by 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants which may have been even more damaging. Crude oil from the blowout has been found as far away as Tampa Bay.

In the wake of the disaster, BP pled guilty to criminal charges, and to two felony counts of lying to Congress. The company was fined a record-setting $4.52 billion in fines. And the company was forced to set aside a total of $42.2 billion for cleanup and damages to people and businesses.

But you’d never know it from the ad campaign, would you? “Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf, and every day since we’ve worked hard to keep that,” says one ad. “I want you to know that there’s another commitment that BP takes just as seriously – our commitment to America.”

It all sounded so nice.

But the U.S. District judge presiding over a suit under the Clean Water Act apparently wasn’t swayed by the ads. Yesterday, Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct in the blowout, exposing BP to as much as $18 billion more in civil penalties on behalf of victims. In a 153-page decision, Judge Barbier recounted “a chain of failures” – including skimping on safety tests and dishonest analysis of results – resulting in the explosion and spill.

There is still much that remains unknown about the effects of BP’s actions in the Gulf. Some cite evidence that the well is still leaking. Others point to mortality of baby dolphins, which increased by a factor of ten after the spill. Oil-related carcinogens in the Gulf have increased by a factor of 40, with unknown impacts on humans and marine life. Deep coral reefs have suffered significant damage, with largely unknown impacts on ocean ecosystems. Many of us have been to the Mississippi Delta to witness first-hand the damage to local fishing communities. It may be many years before we really know the true cost of the BP Gulf spill.

But one thing that we can know beyond doubt it this: All those cheery fossil-fuel ads have had only one purpose—to mask the extent of the damage and the ongoing risks of tar sands mining, fracking and mountaintop removal coal. And now, ever more clearly – of deep-water oil drilling.

It’s up to you whether you hit the mute button on those commercials or not. But I suspect that, whatever they’re saying this time around, we should take it with a huge grain of salt.

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