NEW ORLEANS — Miles of orange boom no longer snake along the coast. Public officials don’t clamor for action with the same frequency they did before. And the victims speak mostly through their lawyers in the courtroom.
Three years after the deadly Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it’s BP’s voice that is heard most often.
Regular television commercials being run nationally, executive speeches, press statements and social media remind Americans of what the British oil giant has done and continues to do to restore the water and beaches. The company also is still working to restore its battered image.
“Generally speaking, a company would do this type of advertising to raise awareness — or remind its community — of the resources that have been committed to addressing the problems they caused,” said Daniel Keeney, a Dallas public relations expert.
“It would often suggest that their polling shows that if people are reminded of the good works done in the aftermath of the problem, they would feel more positively about the company involved.”
BP owned the well that blew out a mile beneath the sea off Louisiana on April 20, 2010, triggering an explosion that killed 11 workers on Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Before the well was capped almost three months later, millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf in the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.
BP has spent more than $25 billion so far on the cleanup, compensating victims and other spill-related costs. It also agreed to a multibillion-dollar civil settlement with thousands of individuals and businesses and $4.5 billion in fines related to criminal and Securities and Exchange Commission violations.
Billions of dollars more in damages and fines are at stake at a civil trial in federal court in New Orleans. The first phase of the trial, which focused on apportioning blame for the disaster and determining if any of the companies involved acted with gross negligence, wrapped up Wednesday after eight weeks of testimony.
The second phase, which will focus on the amount of oil that spilled, is set for September. The judge overseeing the case has not yet issued any major rulings as to the three main companies involved — BP, drilling contractor Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton.
3 years later: Environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill
On Wall Street, BP stock is still down 23 percent since the day before the spill. Investors are upset, and at the company’s annual meeting earlier this month they urged BP to fight harder to prevent the financial toll from the oil spill from ballooning.
“I think BP is continuing to run the commercials because they are still trying to regain their financial loss,” said Courtney Kemp-Robertson, who was married to rig worker Roy Wyatt Kemp when he was killed in the blast. She has since remarried.
“All BP is worried about is money; that’s all they have ever been worried about,” she added. “Why else would it take them three years to apologize? It kills my soul every time I see a BP symbol. I will never buy gas or even go into a BP store to use the restroom ever again.”
BP officials won’t say how much they have spent on their spill-related public relations efforts, but they insist their ongoing messaging has nothing to do with Saturday’s three-year anniversary or the trial. Reminding the public what the company has done and how the company contributes to the American economy is the goal, officials say.
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“We made a commitment in the wake of the spill not just to help restore the Gulf, the environment and the economy, but also to keep the American people apprised of our efforts,” Geoff Morrell, head of U.S. communications for BP, said in an interview. “We take those commitments very seriously.”
Shelley Anderson’s commitment is to forgive those she blames for the death of her husband, rig worker Jason Anderson.
“I am working very hard to give them my complete forgiveness,” said Anderson, who will lay flowers on her husband’s grave to commemorate the sad anniversary. ”One day, I will be able to say that I have totally forgiven them for taking my husband from me and my children.
“I am sorry I am not at that point.”
A commercial featuring a BP operations manager, Fred Lemond, has continued to run in recent weeks along the Gulf Coast.
The spot talks of the promise BP made to America after the oil spill and how every day since, the company has “worked hard to keep it.” The commercial also notes the rebound in tourism in the region, the amount of money BP has spent on cleanup efforts and the money BP invests in the country and in creating U.S. jobs. BP says it has been running several commercials around the country for more than a year, and it says the commercials aren’t running with any greater frequency now than previously.
Timeline: The Gulf oil spill’s legal war
BP lately has been putting out its message in other ways, as well.
It sent out a five-page fact sheet to reporters talking about the progress of recovery in the Gulf, efforts to compensate individuals and communities affected and efforts to support long-term research. Among the money it says it has paid out to communities since the spill is $300 million for items including tourism promotion, seafood testing and marketing. Gulf states and local communities have been running their own promotional ads in addition to BP’s.
Online, BP has been active in recent days on Twitter. Morrell has sent out several Tweets over the last two weeks about new research showing the resiliency of the Gulf and other spill-related issues.
— Geoff Morrell (@MorrellGeoff) April 16, 2013
In the interview, Morrell pointed out that BP isn’t alone in the public conversation about the spill. He noted that while media attention has diminished, several news organizations, including the Houston Chronicle, continue to cover the trial and various other aspects of the spill and its aftermath.
Responding to critics who suggest BP should spend less on advertising and more on the Gulf, Morrell asserted that BP has honored its responsibilities.
“I don’t know how anyone with a straight face could argue the opposite now that we have spent more than $25 billion on the response, clean-up and claims thus far,” Morrell said. “That is a clear demonstration, manifestation, to our commitment to restore the Gulf, the environment and the economy.”
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Environmentalists and public officials along the Gulf have raised their profiles a little as the anniversary approaches, but for the most part aren’t seeking out coverage to the extent they were in the year or two after the Gulf disaster.
The National Wildlife Federation issued a report earlier this month asserting that dolphin deaths and sea turtle strandings in the waters affected by BP’s oil continue to occur at elevated rates. The group’s director at the time noted BP’s public relations efforts but insisted the spill is not over.
This week, environmental and community leaders gathered at the courthouse where the oil spill trial is being held to remind Americans they will continue to keep the pressure on BP to clean up the oil they say continues to wash up from the spill after storms, even if they aren’t as vocal as they once were.
As for the victims, Kemp-Robertson said the anniversary is difficult every year, but so are birthdays and holidays.
“Most everyone will forget what happened on April 20, 2010, but that is a reality that we as families carry with us every day,” she said.
Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill:
- Mississippi becomes 3rd state to sue BP for oil spill (April 19)
- Gulf spill judge says ruling could take months (April 17)
- Investigators blast Congress for inadequate Gulf spill response (April 17)
- Former BP engineer says US withheld evidence related to Gulf spill (April 17)
- Ex-BP engineer responds to feds’ ‘farcical’ claims (April 11)