The explosions that rocked BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 set in motion a series of environmental events that captured the attention of the world for much of the year.
Media coverage of the environmental harm caused by the disaster, however, was sporadic — as were reactions to it by the White House and environmental organizations. The oil industry, of course, was largely mute. And within a year of the disaster, BP’s profits soared and today offshore drilling is expanding into ever more remote and fragile ecosystems.
How can this be?
Our research, recently published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, suggests the answer lies in where the world was looking — in the fact that social and political attention was focused on high-status political actors and the economy, and not on the damage done to the environment.
The oil spill in the Gulf fast became the largest human-made environmental disaster in American history. U.S. federal scientists estimate that five million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico during the spill. That’s a shocking number — but not as shocking as the fact that oil spills are far more common than most people imagine.
A year before the Gulf disaster, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responded to 178 spills. Few drew significant national or international media or political attention.
And a disaster like oil spills doesn’t simply end; the effects linger. Although some of the oil from the spill was captured, a significant amount still remains at sea or on shore, along with the chemical dispersants used to dissolve oil slicks and subsea plumes, which many scientists believe adversely affect marine and human life.
Despite this, BP’s profits continue to rise, and the company proudly advertises its commitment to building American prosperity. What happened to our commitment to the environment?
Perhaps BP weathered the storm (so to speak) because it paid out more than $12 billion in claims to individuals, businesses and government entities. BP also has done much to cosmetically restore the Gulf’s coastal ecology. The U.S. government has increased oversight and operational safety policies for offshore drilling. Oil continues to spill regardless. So far in 2014, the NOAA has responded to 67 incidents and the year isn’t even over yet. When oil spills, does anyone notice?
To answer this question, we conducted an analysis of media coverage of the BP spill’s environmental harms, and responses by the White House, environmental NGOs, and oil companies to the disaster. Conventional wisdom and much scholarship suggest that the media, social and political actors respond to issues and events that are easier to portray visually and to explain.
In environmental terms, this means images of oil-soaked birds are more likely to get attention than the complex effects of chemical compounds in oil dispersants like Corexit on marine life.
We were surprised to learn through our research that the media, the White House and environmental NGOs tended to respond to each other — and not to the properties of the environmental harms themselves. We found that the timing of social and political engagement in the oil spill largely occurred in reaction to statements by high-status actors rather than the actual ecological destruction. The oil industry, conspicuously, remained silent.
The findings are important for Canadians as oil exploration expands. This brings into question how effectively the Canadian government and those responsible for a major spill would respond to it. Until news media, activists, government, the oil industry and the public start responding to the environmental harms themselves, the environment will silently suffer.