Politics of Poverty

As Not Seen on TV: BP Fails to “Measure Up” on Promises to Gulf Coast

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BP must do a better job of working fairly with the state and federal trustee to move projects forward.

Every Sunday, my wife and I make a pot of coffee and settle in to watch our favorite political shows—“Sunday Morning” on CBS and “Meet the Press” on NBC. Every week, we cringe when it goes to commercial and we hear the Zydeco music kick in: here comes BP, trumpeting the message that the Gulf of Mexico is not only doing A-OK, but better than ever two and a half years after the largest offshore oil spill in our nation’s history. In one, Mike Ulster, a BP executive handling cleanup and damages, cites BP’s commitment of billions of dollars to ecological and economic restoration and says, “People in the Gulf measure commitment by what’s getting done.” In terms of paying those who lost income in the spill, BP, has paid billions to date in economic damages and is on the verge reaching a settlement with many parties, despite vocal concerns from many in the fishing industry about not accounting for unknowns of long-term impacts.

But in addressing ecological restoration, the reality is that BP just isn’t measuring up to its commitments.

It looked good at first. BP committed a down payment of $1 billion to start the work of repairing the ecological damage wrought by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, over a year and a half later, BP has approved only $66 million in ecological restoration projects—less than seven percent of the promised money. At this rate, it would take about 25 years to “measure up” and fulfill their commitment.

And make no mistake: timing is critical. We still don’t know the extent of the damage, but we do know that we need to act fast to mitigate the long-lasting effects and restore the vital resources of the Gulf Coast. For example, Prince William Sound’s herring fishery took a big hit after the Exxon Valdez disaster; but it didn’t totally collapse until four years later. Had action been taken to repair herring habitat, who knows what could have been prevented? While BP is dragging its heels and “slow walking” the process, key ecosystems are languishing.

Shrimp and oyster harvests have been down since the spill, crushing the spirits and livelihoods of thousands of working families. But the effects may extend further; oysters take two to three years to mature, and the bays and bayous are still suffering from the 4.9 million barrels of oil that hit the area in 2010. After Hurricane Isaac, Louisiana closed 12 miles of coastline because of thousands of pounds of oiled debris washing up—the same oil that leaked during the spill.

Under BP’s agreement on early restoration, BP must approve with relevant state and federal agency heads what projects are considered and has the final say on what moves forward.

Project ideas are out there. State and federal trustees have drafted plans that would repair damage, reduce storm surge, protect livelihoods, and more. Louisiana and Mississippi have both proposed significant sets of projects, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, which would restore barrier islands, wetlands, and fisheries. Other states have also engaged with coastal communities in finding solution. But despite having good projects ready to go, the approvals to move forward on vital projects are not materializing.

So, with less than seven percent of this initial commitment to the Gulf Coast  met, it’s fair to say BP must do a better job of working fairly with the state and federal trustee to move projects forward.

On another front, a BP-backed trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, has sued the Securities and Exchange Commission to try to overturn a landmark anti-corruption and transparency regulation that requires all oil, gas and mining companies to disclose their payments to governments both overseas and here at home. In the US, this Oxfam-supported regulation will give Gulf communities a picture of how much BP pays the Federal government in royalties and taxes for each offshore license in the Gulf. Yet another situation where BP talks a good game—in this case with public commitments to transparency—but has refused to follow through in doing the right thing: publicly backing away from this lawsuit which is trying to overturn a landmark disclosure law.

The question to Mr. Ulster: Is your company really willing to do what it takes to measure up?

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