POLITICS
10/22/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

BP's Damage To The Gulf Of Mexico Has Been Wildly Exaggerated, Says BP Flack In Politico Magazine

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[Updated, below.]

Today's Politico Magazine offers up some seriously dope sponsored content for your weary body, in the form of an article called "No, BP Didn't Ruin The Gulf." The piece goes on to insist, at length, that four years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, things down around the Gulf Coast are hunky-dory, nothing to worry about, nothing to see here. The punch line is that this piece was penned by Geoff Morrell, BP's "senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs," which is a fancy title that means "head of PR shenanigans for BP." What to call this genre of editorial?

Yeah, that sounds about right.

The basic issue, from BP's perspective, is something that Morrell waits until the end of his native advertisement to bring up -- namely, the money that BP has been legally obligated to pay out to claimants as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This matter has been fraught: BP has been fighting the way the law has been interpreted in court, with mixed results. And there have been a number of plainly fraudulent claims, filed simply in an effort to get some BP ducats, that Morrell can legitimately point to. Indeed, this is something Morrell has complained about before.

Such complaints are unobjectionable, if for no other reason than that fraudulent claims impede justice for those who have legitimate ones. This Politico Magazine piece, however, embarks on an entirely different path: It attempts to convince you that the environmental impact of the 2010 disaster was really very slight. Per Morrell:

Make no mistake: The Deepwater Horizon accident was a tragedy. Eleven people lost their lives. Birds, fish and other wildlife perished. And with a camera trained 24/7 on the wellhead, a sense of alarm was understandable while the well was flowing.

That's a pretty neat trick right there: equating coverage of the disaster with the harmful effects of the disaster itself. Morrell's take seems to be that one of the bigger things that damaged the Gulf Coast was the fact that too many people knew the Gulf Coast was being damaged.

Morrell goes on to point out that the most dire predictions of the spill's effects -- that "there will be tar balls all the way up the East Coast, all the way to Europe" -- didn't happen. The Gulf of Mexico, he says, is possessed of an "inherent resilience." The type of oil that poured into the gulf was "Louisiana sweet crude," you guys, which totally isn't as bad as the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. (Hashtag: #notallpollutants!) And there was an "unprecedented response" to the disaster. (Because maybe it was an unprecedented disaster?)

"Natural oil seeps release up to the equivalent of nearly six Exxon Valdez spills in the Gulf each year, and microbes in the Gulf have adapted over time to feast on oil," says Morrell, apparently missing the point that maybe those well-adapted microbes weren't prepared to feast on an additional two months' worth of oil seepage that appeared in the Gulf of Mexico all of a sudden.

Beyond all that, Morrell wants you not to worry, because of a study:

But today, it's worth examining what is currently known about the spill's actual impact based on the environmental data that is now available. This includes studies conducted as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) -- the process for determining what harm has been done to natural resources. The Deepwater Horizon NRDA is the most extensive and expensive environmental assessment ever conducted, spanning four years so far and costing BP a billion dollars and counting.

Although the NRDA is not finished, the evidence to date shows the Gulf environment is rebounding and that most of the environmental impact was of short duration and in a limited geographic area.

It's pretty neat how in the space of a few paragraphs, Morrell goes from an insistence that we have to assess the situation based upon data "that is now available," holding up the NRDA as an example of that data (and suggesting that it exonerates BP), to the part where he basically says, Oh, by the way -- minor point here -- the data I'm saying is 'now available' actually doesn't exist quite yet.

As to the claim that "BP Didn't Ruin The Gulf," there are a lot of people are saying, "Nah."

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reported in September that "commercial catches for several varieties of seafood have decreased since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill." A study published in the July 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that "the footprint of the impact of the spill on coral communities is both deeper and wider than previous data indicated." In April, the National Wildlife Federation released a study that attested to the continuing harm being done to key Gulf region species by the oil spill, including dolphins and Atlantic bluefin tuna. (This is something of a recurring theme among those who study the Gulf's wildlife.) On the coast itself, the oil spill continues to foster accelerated erosion. And tarballs containing material from the Deepwater Horizon spill continue to find their way ashore.

Morrell, who is nothing if not persistent, has occasionally popped up to accuse the people who conduct these studies of having a political agenda and "cherry picking" data. In his Politico Magazine piece, though, cherry-picking is evidently OK:

For example, these groups claim the spill harmed the Gulf's oyster population. What they don't say is that government sampling in 2010, 2011 and 2012 did not document a single visibly oiled oyster bed. In 2013, researchers found some tar balls on a single bed in Louisiana, but the government has not yet disclosed if they were even from the spill.

And yet, according to the Gulf Seafood Institute:

From Texas to Florida, the number of oysters harvested in the Gulf is at one of the lowest on record. Three years after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, oyster industry experts have no answers on the cause of the steep decline; especially on public grounds relied upon by commercial fishermen.

Oystermen and processors indicate that Gulf oysters are tough to come by. Various Gulf State fisheries are conducting studies on oyster reproduction and growth, but answers have been elusive.

Right about now, you are maybe wondering how it came to pass that Politico Magazine even gave space to Morrell's meandering bit of hand-waving. The answer, of course, is that Morrell paid for it.

Yeah, son. All that quid eventually yields a hot bowl of the ol' pro quo. If you cast your mind back to Eric Wemple's original Washington Post study on the vagaries of Mike Allen's Politico Playbook and its troubled history with sponsors, you'll find that BP and Morrell shine brightly in the firmament:

Another big name that's gotten a healthy dose of earned media from Playbook is BP, a company that has faced quite a challenge in image-conscious Washington, thanks to the 2010 oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the company. In recent months, BP has blanketed "Playbook" with ads hyping the company's status as "America's largest energy investor." The free BP mentions authored by Allen tell a similar story.

Last June, for instance, Allen found newsworthy an AP story about a BP campaign to challenge settlement claims stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The item quoted from a full-page ad that the company had placed in newspapers, and that the AP story had cited. It also included a link to the ad.

Companies love it when their ads get passed around.

That's just one of many documented examples of the tidy BP-Politico synergy that Morrell has procured. "'This Town,' the defining political book of 2013, notes that Allen and Morrell are close friends," writes Wemple, referring to the best-seller by Mark Leibovich. "And close friends help each other in business."

Today's Playbook sponsor, by the way? It's BP. Sweet and crude.

UPDATE, 4:52 p.m.: A BP spokesman responds: "[Morrell's Politico piece] is an opinion piece submitted by BP to an influential newspaper to counter several op-eds about the Gulf that previously were published in this and other media outlets. It’s no different than any other op-ed by any other company in any other publication.”

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