The BP Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20 is now thought to be the greatest environmental catastrophe in the country’s history. Despite this, news coverage in the wake of the spill downplayed the harm, reasserted the need for offshore drilling and minimized the White House’s—and the corporate media’s—recent endorsement of additional offshore oil exploration.
On May 2, the New York Times ran a Week in Review piece from Jad Mouawad headlined “The Spill vs. a Need to Drill.” The tone of the article was clear—“emotions are running high” as the disaster gets worse, with environmentalists “railing at BP,” and “some environmental groups have demanded an end to offshore exploration.” The grown-up answer, though, was simple: “The country needs the oil—and the jobs.”
Much has changed since 1969. The nation’s demand for oil has surged, rising more than 35 percent over the past four decades, while domestic production has declined by a third. Oil imports have doubled, and the United States now buys more than 12 million barrels of oil a day from other countries, about two-thirds of its needs.
The Times went on: “Some in the environmental movement believe that public outrage will also push the government to aggressively develop alternatives to oil.” This was used as a set-up for a quote from an environmentalist, which was then challenged by the reporter:
But developing credible, cheap and abundant alternatives to oil will take many decades, and in the meantime, cars need gasoline and planes need kerosene. The United States is still the world’s top oil consumer by far. Even as China grows, the United States consumes twice as much oil.
Is there any alternative, asks Mouawad? He leaves the last word to the ExxonMobil-backed American Enterprise Institute: “A fossil-fuel free future isn’t inconceivable but it is decades away. Meanwhile, we can’t drill our problems away, but drilling still has a role to play.”
These ideas—that alternatives are far off in the distance, while offshore drilling promises near-immediate benefits—were widespread before the Deepwater catastrophe. An Associated Press story (4/1/10) declared that drilling proponents “applauded the idea of cheap energy and jobs that oil platforms off their beaches could bring.” NBC anchor Brian Williams (3/31/10) reported that drilling supporters argue that more rigs will “lessen our dependence on foreign oil and keep gas prices low.”
The March 22 issue of Newsweek had a piece with a subhead that explained, “Miles below the ocean floor lies enough oil to power the U.S. for more than a decade—and perhaps our best shot at energy independence.” And a USA Today editorial (4/2/10) argued,
The math alone makes a compelling case…. Critics note that the potential supplies offshore are a tiny part of the world market, but even so the Interior Department’s estimates range from 39 billion to 62 billion barrels of oil. We use 7 billion barrels a year, so if the oil is really there, it could be five to nine years worth.
Actually, the “math” says otherwise. Forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (Annual Energy Outlook 2009) find that additional domestic drilling would have minimal impact on oil prices. Since the United States would not be allowed to capture the oil and use it exclusively for domestic consumption, comparisons to U.S. consumption are essentially meaningless—and domestic drilling would have little impact on the much-discussed need to break the grip of “foreign oil.”
Those facts are generally excluded from press discussions of drilling, so it might come as no surprise that many in the media approached the Gulf spill as an unavoidable catastrophe. Even stories that explained the economics of oil clearly, like the May 17 Time cover story, nonetheless concluded that “offshore drilling would have to be a part” of any serious policy.
Not so bad after all?
For a media system generally supportive of offshore drilling (see sidebar, below), there was some interest in downplaying the magnitude of the BP disaster. The most flagrant example came on the front page of the New York Times on May 4, under the headline “Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?” The piece warned that while some “have been quick to predict apocalypse,” in fact the BP blowout “is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history.” The Times noted that it paled in comparison to the “36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991.”
That number should have struck someone at the paper as wildly implausible. The actual figure, which the Times noted in a May 20 correction, was an estimated 252 million to 336 million gallons—less than 1/100th of the Times’ original figure.
That wasn’t the only retraction the article required. The Times, seeking a source who might agree with the premise of the piece, struck gold with the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, which the paper called “a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Texas”: “The sky is not falling,” Quentin Dokken reassured. Reporter Marian Wang of ProPublica (5/4/10) revealed that about half of Dokken’s group’s board of directors are tied to the offshore drilling business, and its president is a retired offshore drilling contractor. A May 5 Times Editors’ Note declared that the paper “should have included” more of that context.
At USA Today (5/4/10), right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg chided the media for blowing the crisis out of proportion. Under the headline, “Let’s Keep Oil Spill in the Proper Perspective,” Goldberg wrote that “American offshore oil drilling has had an exemplary safety record,” adding: “As someone who has reported from the Gulf of Mexico, including from rigs like the Deepwater Horizon, I can attest that safety and environmental stewardship are near-obsessions of both industry professionals and their regulators.”
Oil drilling for climate change!
Perhaps the strangest part of the coverage of the BP calamity was the most obvious political context—Barack Obama’s decision to expand offshore drilling weeks before the rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. His announcement was treated more as a political event than anything else, with the overriding sentiment being that Obama could expand offshore oil drilling in order to win Republican support for a climate bill whose goal would be to limit the burning of fossil fuels. (In the world of Beltway politics, this made perfect sense.)
The Washington Post (4/1/10) explained this “high-stakes calculation” under the headline “In Drilling Decision, a Political Maneuver: Obama’s Move to Open New Offshore Areas May Help Climate Bill.” The Los Angeles Times (4/1/10) had the same emphasis: The announcement was “seen as an important overture to Republicans,” with the headline “Drilling Proposal a Peace Offering.”
NBC’s Chuck Todd (3/31/10) announced that “in the world of domestic democratic politics, it’s akin to a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment, a Democratic president bucking a powerful interest group in the Democratic Party, environmentalists, on the issue of oil drilling.” NBC host Chris Matthews (4/4/10) presented Obama’s plan as a turn towards the center, since more drilling “protects Obama from GOP charges he favors the environment at the cost of development.”
The media attitude that environmental concerns are at best a secondary concern goes a long way towards explaining the coverage of the BP catastrophe. Veteran media analyst Andrew Tyndall (Tyndall Report, 4/28/10) noted that the first week of coverage of the spill featured almost no discussion of the environmental effects of the disaster—all the stranger since the rig collapsed on Earth Day. The lesson would seem to be that those who challenged the wisdom of drilling offshore should not be heard from much anymore—as if being correct about the dangers of these policies was a liability.
Time’s May 17 cover story was an instructive example, then, in that it captured much of the conventional wisdom about the unfolding disaster. Environmentalists, readers were told, posed a problem: “But even before any newly spilled oil has hit the shoreline, environmental groups and some coastal Democrats have seized on the accident as a reason to block any new drilling.”
Time derided this thinking as a “wasted opportunity,” adding:
Too often the U.S. has let its energy policy be driven by the emotion of disasters, rather than by smart, long-term and realistic decisionmaking. ‘Drill here, drill now’ was a simpleminded slogan. But ‘Drill nowhere, drill never’ isn’t much better.
Or as NBC anchor Brian Williams (5/31/10) said before the spill: “Some Americans have an opinion of offshore drilling that was first formed decades ago with those pictures of oil on the beaches in Santa Barbara, California. Others see it differently. They say time and technology have changed things.” That would seem to be an apt summary of the corporate media’s take on offshore drilling—and apparently they’re not going to let the biggest environmental disaster in the nation’s history change their minds.
Drilling Disasters Can’t Happen Here
When President Barack Obama defended his support for more offshore drilling by asserting that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills” (4/2/10), the message that offshore drilling was safe was heard loud and clear in the corporate media.
On CNN’s Situation Room (3/31/10), David Gergen claimed that offshore drilling is “a lot more safer, in many ways, environmentally, today than it was 20 years ago.”
Writing an op-ed in the Washington Post (4/2/10), Eric Smith called on his “fellow environmentalists” to rethink offshore drilling, writing: “It is not clear that the risks of offshore oil drilling still outweigh the benefits. The risk of oil spills in the United States is quite low.”
Meanwhile, a USA Today editorial (4/2/10) pointed out that “some of the most ironic objections come from those who say offshore exploration will destroy beaches and coastlines.” The paper reminded readers that “the last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, Calif.”
And in the Weekly Standard (4/26/10), Steven Hayward sought to quell drilling jitters by writing, “To fear oil spills from offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop plane crashes.”
Since the disaster, some prominent outlets have run investigative pieces detailing the negligent oversight and appalling safety records of many of the major players in the offshore drilling industry. But when the New York Times tells readers (5/25/10) about the “enduring laxity of federal regulation of offshore operations,” one can’t help but wonder why this apparently well-known problem got so little attention before the environmental catastrophe.