Ethical questions surrounding the BP Oil Spill

Largest oil spill in U.S. history continues to devastate
Gulf wildlife while the press and independent scientists are continually denied access to
spill site and surrounding beaches.

by Stephanie Malik

On April 20 a wellhead on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling
platform blew out in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 40 miles southeast of the
Louisiana coastline. What BP had initially claimed would be a spill with
“minimal impact”, 69 days later now constitutes the largest offshore oil spill
in U.S. history. Today the well is conservatively estimated to be leaking at a
rate of 1,900,000–3,000,000 litres per day—though several expert estimates
based on footage of the spill suggest the actual rate is more likely to be 3 to
5 times higher than this. The unusually wide disparity in expert estimates is
due to the fact that BP has continually denied the requests of a number of independent
scientists to set up instruments on the ocean floor
that could measure the rate
of the leak more accurately. “The answer is ‘no’ to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom
Mueller, said earlier this month. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts
now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response
effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.

Mueller’s remarks continue to be a source of serious
controversy: just how is it that measuring the rate at which oil is gushing
from the well would serve as a hindrance to the response effort? Even more
baffling is how one could possibly construe the measurement as irrelevant. If
we don’t know how big the mess is, how exactly are we to adequately prepare for
cleaning it up?

One would think the U.S. government would want to ensure
that the press and scientists had access to the spill site in order to provide
public visibility of the effects of the spill and a source of reliable
empirical information about the rate of leakage etc., but unfortunately just
the opposite has been the standard. Earlier this month the New York Times
reported
an entire survey of incidents of the press being denied access to the
site and surrounding areas earlier this month, including one reporter even
being threatened with arrest by the U.S. Coastguard for attempting to gain
access to the site. 

The Obama administration has failed to acknowledge the
continual denial of press access publicly. Following President Obama’s first
address to the nation concerning the oil spill (which was roughly two months
after the spill began), the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, fielded
questions about the spill and the government’s response, and when Gibbs was
questioned about the issue of media access only offered vague comments about
President Obama’s commitment to transparency in government and how the press
are only denied access to “safety zones”—though the NYT article cited above
suggests this is patently false.

The U.S. Government could of course have legitimate reasons
for restricting press access, but one would hope that a government that claims
to value transparency would also be transparent about their reasons for
restricting this access. This raises important ethical questions about what
circumstances justify a government or private company in restricting what
information is made available to the public. How much access should the press
have to the spill site? Is BP justified in restricting press access in order to
preserve its image? Is BP justified in restricting access for independent
scientists and engineers? At what point is the government obligated to
intervene in order to ensure the public is getting the information it is
entitled to? In fact, what information exactly is the public entitled to?

Some
of the other major ethical questions surrounding the spill involve moral and legal obligations
we might have to wildlife and the environment.

Conspicuously absent from Obama’s address was genuine
acknowledgment of the sheer magnitude of the damage the spill will have for
years to come on the wildlife in the Gulf and the ecosystem generally. Some of
the immediate effects of a spill are obvious – there is no shortage of
gut-wrenching images of wildlife doused in oil and seabirds suffocating while
frantically and frivolously preening themselves. But some types of ecological
damage are hard to measure and can take years to document. The miles long
underwater plumes of oil will likely poison and suffocate life across the food
chain, with damage that according to scientists could endure for a decade or
more. Many of the creatures that die will sink to the bottom, making mortality
estimates difficult. Damage to the reproduction rate of sea turtles may take
years to play out.

Unique to the Deepwater Horizon spill is not only how deep
it is, but also the huge quantity of chemical dispersants sprayed on the
surface and at the leak on the seafloor. The problem with dispersants is
two-fold in that oil is not only directly toxic to many of the creatures in the
Gulf like pelicans, sea turtles, fish, and dolphins, but also microbes in the
water that eat the oil suck oxygen out of the water at a massive rate, with
levels of oxygen depletion that could be lethal to many other creatures in the
water. Moreover the dispersants that are used to fight the oil are also
consumed by the microbes—speeding up the rate of oxygen depletion in the Gulf
even further. What is especially worrying is that on top of this dangerously
low levels of oxygen are already a concern as, according the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, huge numbers of fish, dolphins, and even sharks, are already
crowding into exceptionally shallow waters near the shores of Alabama and
Florida in order to escape the oil. There's also little scientific
understanding of how the dispersants might affect the deep-water ecosystem.

Legal
protection of wildlife in the Gulf is thin.
There are no laws that exist simply
to protect animal interests. U.S. law protects animals as property. That means
laws designed to protect animals exist only to protect the interests of their
owners or the public “Most of the
wild animals affected by the BP spill do not have any legal protections at all,
and there is no penalty that can be imposed for suffocating them with oil,
destroying their habitats and otherwise harming them,” said Justin Goodman, a
representative of PETA.

"The
Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have protections in
place for the dolphins, whales and sea turtles that live in the Gulf. But the
Minerals Management Service has approved oil exploration without the permits
required by the two acts.

The Obama administration is the target of lawsuits
over this."

Environmental
disasters of this magnitude certainly raise the question whether we ought to
have stricter laws for the protection of the environment not only for the sake of wildlife and the ecological system, but also for the people whose livelihood depends on the health of the Gulf. Another question to raise here is whether some wild animals
ought to have more robust legal protections of their interests—legal
protections motivated apart from human interest in the enjoyment of wild animals as “property”.

So
far the death toll with respect to wildlife does not have shockingly high
numbers, As of June 25, there had been 1,539 dead animals found in the spill zone
including 1074 dead birds, 417 sea turtles, and 48 dolphins and other
mammals—but these numbers likely do not even come close to reflecting the
actual number of deaths.

As
NWF senior scientist Dr. Doug Inkley explains, these numbers tell only part of
the story as the effect of the oil on marine life remains hidden beneath the massive
plumes of oil that are hundreds of feet deep, making it impossible to capture
the full scope of the spill’s impact. “We know we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with
those that have been washed up onshore and tested.”

Of
course the timing also couldn’t have been much worse as now is the time of year
when most nesting occurs: "Right now is nesting season for brown pelicans,
roseate spoonbills and a host of other birds," said Inkley. "Knowing that it only takes a drop or two of oil to
kill the developing chick in an egg, I could not help but feel a
great sense of loss…It is going to take years, maybe decades
for the fish and wildlife in this region to recover."

"Words
like 'tragedy' and 'disaster' do not do justice to what is happening”, he
added.

Clearly
it couldn’t be more urgent that we clean this up as soon as possible, but as
the lateness of Obama’s address might suggest, the response has been slow….
Very slow. According to the President of the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana,
Billy Nungesser, the government’s actual response to this catastrophe has been
“embarrassing”. In an interview
earlier this month President Nungesser spoke about how the government has no master
plan for coping with this disaster and that federal officials, including
Admiral Thad Allen, consistently refuse to accept clean up plans developed by local
and state governments, despite their experience, and moreover lack any
alternative plan. He also expressed frustration about the fact that the
government seems more concerned with emphasizing the fact that this is BP’s
fault than with actually assisting in the clean up.

What
you’ve seen in pictures in minimal compared to what’s ahead. It’s just starting
to get into the breeding grounds and you will see much more death and
devastation amongst the wildlife in south Louisiana in the weeks to come and
today we’re doing absolutely nothing but redeploying the same boom and doing
some minimal skimming. There is no plan, there is no master plan, there’s
nobody taking charge. The President of the United States has got to step up to
the plate. We’re begging him… We’ve given him several plans that will work.
Either do our plan or come up with one better, but quit threatening back and
forth between BP and the coast guard. It’s like a bunch of kids pointing the
finger at each other. Step up to the plate. We need leadership now, not a blame
game
. ”

When
asked if he believed the U.S. Government had been criminal, Pres Nungesser
responded, “Well, absolutely.”

Has
the Obama administration lived up to its moral obligations with respect to the
spill? More generally, at what point might other countries have a right to
intervene when it comes to the handling of environmental disasters and
environmental safety regulations? Certainly climate change issues of
international reach, like the regulation of fossil fuel emissions, are also
relevant to these sorts of questions.

With Libya’s announcement of a deal just yesterday that will allow BP to
initiate deepwater drilling off its coast
, as well as Hurricane Alex and the rest of hurricane season looming, we might have to address such
questions sooner than we’d have hoped.

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