Who's really accountable for the BP oil spill?

Commentary by Clare Raybould, special to mongabay.com
July 25, 2010

Reading articles in the newspapers recently and online, I find the media's focus is on scrutinizing BP's way of paying for the damage done when an estimated 76,934,000 gallons of their oil leaked out into the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of their Deepwater Horizon rig in April. It is not that they are being criticised for not standing up and taking full responsibility for their recklessness that caused the spill, but instead they are being accused of not paying enough money for its clean-up. Taxpayers are outraged that they may pick-up the tab and are demanding to know why they should be held accountable when the disaster wasn’t their fault. Yet, do we not all have a part to play in this catastrophe?

About 1 billion gallons of oil spill into the ocean each year. When you consider that 1 billion gallons would fill 1660 Olympic-sized swimming pools, you have to ask yourself, who are they drilling it for?

Oil is a business, a man-made operation; oil’s extraction is a process and with this process comes risks. As a business one has a responsibility to identify possible risks and put controls in place to reduce the likelihood of them causing harm. We can question BP over and over about what precautions they did or didn’t take to control the risks of their operation, but what do we do to make sure these disasters stop? What responsibility must we take?

Oiled brown pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, Louisiana. Photo courtesy of International Bird Rescue Research Center.
We aid the victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis with outpourings of monetary donations and other kinds of assistance: events we have no control over. Yet we are quibbling over who will pay for the clean-up of this? As individuals, corporations, even as governments we must all take a piece of the blame for creating this problem. We all have a responsibility to step up and fix the damage we’ve done.

Swedish businessman Carl-Henric Svanberg said in one of the many articles on the incident: "It's a tragic accident. There are eleven people who have lost their lives."

Define Accident...

In addition to the people who lost their lives, our ocean has been devastated and whole ecosystems have been affected by the spill. For example, the snowy plover, one of the most at-risk species in the region, is not just dying from coming into direct contact with the oil, but from eating other smaller invertebrates that have also been contaminated with oil; they are being poisoned. This is happening to scores of other birds, mammals and fish. Species migration routes have also been affected, along with feeding and spawning areas equally.

We cannot reckon the numbers of the Gulf wildlife dead, but among the victims are hundreds of birds, hundreds of sea turtles (one of which is only found in the area of the Gulf spill) and mammals. Although the leak has been plugged the oil is still seeping, most recently onto Raccoon Island, Louisiana's largest pelican nesting area, which is home to about 10,000 nesting birds. Experts warn the huge size of the spill means they probably will never be able to find more than a tiny percentage of the dead.

Still photo of live feed of Gulf oil spill in cooperation with BP. Photo courtesy of the US government.
There is also the fear that the cycle of damage is just starting—there may be far worse to come, and not just for animals, but for humans too; if this was homicide it would be crawling our news pages and filling our headlines, but because it’s ecocide?


I find it difficult to believe that this disaster wasn’t predictable. I find it difficult to understand why the scale of this disaster to our environment wasn’t our first realization and why now it isn’t our first priority. What I mean by "accountability" is being responsible for your actions, taking responsibility for the worst consequences if they happen and learning from your mistakes.

BP should have always been working on contingencies for a worse case scenario, putting long-term plans in place to recover a situation if the worst were to happen. Equally, however, we need to be aware that our demand for oil comes with consequences: damage, death and harm are all inevitable consequences of deep sea mining. Even without the Deepwater Horizon exploding—due to an equipment malfunction, error or whatever the root cause—the process of oil extraction buries marine communities, 'the origins of life on earth', and parts of the ecosystem that holds the key to sustaining life on earth in the future.

So, what can I do to take responsibility?

You can donate money or supplies or volunteer your time, but making environmentally responsible choices as consumers in the first place will make the biggest improvement, ultimately, to this situation. We need to accept what we can learn from this situation, accept that we are as vulnerable as the animals that have already died in this catastrophe and accept that we are as responsible as BP because we fuel their need to take risks. Yes, they might have acted recklessly, but we have a choice in whether we continue to 'blindly' demand that they carry on, whether we choose to fuel their desire for profit.

Conservation International states that "to date, no single government or organisation has taken a truly global approach to the protection of the oceans we all depend on". The true victim of this catastrophe is our ocean, the entity we, as much as the animals, depend on. It could be said that individuals (we) also haven’t taken a step to change things for the better. To the question of why we should the answer is simple: if this all come down to greed: without the ocean, humans won’t exist.

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Commentary by Clare Raybould, special to mongabay.com (July 25, 2010).

Who's really accountable for the BP oil spill?.