Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The Great American Oil Spill: corruption at the heart of BP

10 November, 2010 - 10:27 -- Bethan John

Conservationist Mark Carwardine ends talk of Stephen Fry and “Last Chance to See” fame, to expose the US government and BP’s cover-up.

Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry

Conservationist and WLT council member with Stephen Fry during "Last Chance to See".

For months we watched as gallons of oil ploughed into the ocean, we saw livelihoods reduced to tatters and witnessed the biggest environmental disaster in recent US history. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would live with us forever, a constant reminder of the dangers associated with our dependence on dirty oil.

At least that is what we thought. Conservationist and World Land Trust (WLT) council member Mark Carwardine has just arrived back from Louisiana; he found better-off fishermen chatting in cafes and pubs safe in the knowledge that 75 per cent of the oil has been dispersed, while scientists gushed in their praise for BP’s efficient handling of the disaster. And the oil slick disaster had been replaced by an even slicker PR campaign.

Mark and Stephen Fry’s one-hour special programme, called “Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill”, was shown on BBC2 in November. They looked at the likely long-term impact to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the future of oil and its exploration.

Filming: the big surprises

“There were a lot of shocks when filming for the programme”, said Mark, “but one of the biggest was that we could hardly find anybody to speak out about BP or even to say anything against what’d happened.” By flooding the area with billions of dollars in compensation and a slick PR campaign - more than they had spent on clearing up the spill - BP successfully made many dissenting voices fall silent.

The feeling is that Louisiana is awash with guilty money, a short-term solution to what BP is trying to portray as a short-term problem.

They claimed that three quarters of the oil has gone”, said Mark. “This is not true. We had a very heated interview with the head of BP operations and he actually admitted that this statement, made by BP and the US government, was - at the very least - premature. At this point the interview was cut short – which says an awful lot in itself.”

Scientist’s outrage

Many independent scientists and environmental groups have continuously disputed the claim that 75 per cent of the oil has been successfully eliminated, accusing the US government of helping BP play down the disaster. Nine leading scientists have written a public letter calling on BP and the Obama administration to release all scientific data related to the spill.

The toxic nature of the chemicals used to disperse the oil has also caused outcry. In August the US government was facing internal dissent from its own scientists for approving the use of two million gallons of chemical dispersants, known as Corexit. While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EAP) has been under fire for letting BP simply ignore their advice against the use of dispersants, chemicals that are banned in the UK.

Alarm over the effect of these chemicals on peoples’ health has also been raised; the international news network, Al Jazeera, has investigated growing reports of illness across the Gulf Coast that is thought to be linked to the chemical dispersants used by BP. One doctor even claims that people are dying from exposure to the chemicals, stating that he knows of two people who are down to 4.75 per cent of their lung capacity, their heart has enlarged to make up for that, and their esophagus is disintegrating, and one of them is a 16-year-old boy who went swimming in the Gulf.

The tip of the iceberg

“There are six major oil companies and they’re all pretty much the same; they talk clean and they act dirty”, said Mark. The Deepwater Horizon is just one of 3,500 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico alone, and a lot of them are drilling in very deep waters. “Most of the easily accessible oil, outside the Middle East, has gone”, explained Mark. “We’re desperate for oil and desperate to be free from reliance on the Middle East, so we’re searching and drilling for oil right on the frontier of where it’s possible to do so. If anything goes wrong they have no idea how to deal with it, that’s the scary thing – we’ll be hearing more and more about disasters like this in years to come.”

Yet this is not a future concern looming on the horizon, devastating spills are happening right now. In Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where Shell operates, they leak double the amount of oil than was spilt in the Gulf of Mexico disaster – every year. “The people living there are eating contaminated fish and drinking contaminated water”, said Mark. “Nobody gets to hear about it because it’s not in the West, it’s not America.”

Putting conservation on the agenda

Mark is deeply concerned about the lack of coverage of conservation issues on television. That is what sparked his idea to make a TV version of his original work with the late Douglas Adams, called “Last Chance to See”. The follow-up, twenty years on, was with Stephen Fry. Its aim was to prove to the BBC that international conservation could be entertaining and could attract wide viewing audiences.

Before “Last Chance to See”, the BBC produced world-class nature and wildlife documentaries that rarely mentioned conservation. “I think the media and politicians have underestimated how many people are really interested, really concerned, and want to learn more”, said Mark.

How to make a difference

Despite conservation issues being a concern for many, the fact that vast areas of the world are in desperate need of protection often results in people becoming overwhelmed and unsure how they can help. Mark actively encourages people to support small organisations that are focused on specific conservation areas. “The World Land Trust is a classic example”, he said. “It has a small team of dedicated and knowledgeable staff, who are actively making a difference on the ground. This I think is really important.”

Mark believes that you should pick a place or subject that you are passionate about, find a small organisation that is working in that field, and simply support them in every way you can. He believes that if everybody followed this principle then all the conservation groups could do so much more, ensuring that when disasters do strike they are in the best position possible to help support our environment.

Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill was shown on BBC2 on  November 7, if you missed it you can watch it again on BBC iPlayer

More information

Read more about Mark Carwardine and WLT's other council members

BP dispersants 'causing sickness', Al Jazeera

BP oil spill: Obama administration's scientists admit alarm over chemicals, The Guardian

Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill, The Guardian

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