In combating the Gulf of Mexcio oil spill, BP has resorted to controversial methods of distancing itself from negative publicity. Critics fear full compensation for environmental and economic damage is unlikely.
US President Obama is concluding a two day tour of affected areas
More than six weeks after the now infamous sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, efforts to staunch crude oil flowing from an underwater well have only partially succeeded.
Meanwhile, the environmental and financial tolls of the catastrophe have yet to be fully assessed. Tourism and fishing industries along the Gulf of Mexico have suffered devastating effects as oil washes ashore and vast areas of water are polluted, killing wildlife.
BP has stopped referring to the catastrophe using the name of the "Deepwater Horizon" rig in favor of using the short-form name of the well it dug, "MC252." It has also limited press access to affected areas, limited the release of information and bought up spill-related online search terms at major search engines.
Obama foresees policy changes
Obama said the spill will shape future environment and energy policies
While BP has already agreed to some financial compensation, skeptics doubt the full costs of the spill will ever be recovered.
Currently BP is collecting about 15,000 barrels of oil a day – about half the amount believed to be leaking. The company's latest plan follows pressure from the Obama administration and calls for more than 50,000 barrels a day to be collected by the end of June.
The well is expected to continue leaking until BP completes the first of two relief wells in August.
Obama said in a recent interview the spill would alter US policy during coming years. He has also lamented the threat posed to the Gulf of Mexico coastline with its wildlife-filled wetlands, beaches and waters teeming with shrimps, crabs and fish.
"In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come," he told the Washington-based news organization Politico.
Fair compensation doubted
A number of NGOs fear that local populations and ecosystems will ultimately shoulder the catastrophe's most significant burdens while BP minimizes losses for itself and its shareholders.
Workers cleaning up spilled oil may later suffer health problems
Greenpeace spokeswoman Cindy Baxter said she expects a scenario similar to the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, during which 40,000 tons of crude oil leaked into Alaska's Prince William Sound. That resulted in a 19-year legal process over a five-billion-dollar compensation deal .
"Exxon has taken it through the courts, and through the courts, and through the courts. The original five billion dollars? That estimated amount of compensation has now been reduced to $500 million. People who wanted compensation died looking for it. That includes workers who were working on the spill and have had huge amounts of health problems from working with the dispersants that they used," she told Deutsche Welle.
Economic interests at risk
In addition to the damage caused by the current disaster, experts say prospecting for fossil fuels will likely become riskier in the future as energy demand rises and easily accessible resources dwindle. Advocates for renewable energy sources have been quick to point this out.
Felix Matthes, an expert on renewable energy at the Berlin Institute for Applied Ecology, says aggressive development of renewable energy infrastructure is a necessary investment which can be unified with economic interests.
"This catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico has made it clear that the current use of energy – especially as accessing raw materials becomes ever more complicated, and this access means disturbing ever more delicate ecosystems – can come at a high cost," he told Deutsche Welle.
BP may shirk fully compensating affected locals like fishermen
But the global economy is still based on oil, and the oil industry enjoys political protections. The United States' 1990 Oil Pollution Act, signed into law by President George Bush Sr., limits liability in the case of a spill to $75 million.
Similarly, Louisiana's Senator Mary Landrieu has taken a stance protecting the oil industry as a whole.
David Cadman of the organization Local Governments for Sustainability said he believes BP has failed to put enough emphasis on cleanup efforts.
"The previous Bush administration basically limited the liability of the oil companies in case of an accident, and I think that's going to come home to roost. All of a sudden we're going to see the bills, and there's going to be a great fight as to who should pay those bills. And I suspect BP is going to say: 'This is the agreement we had. We pay up to this and no more.'"
Author: Helle Jeppeson/gps/afp
Editor: Nathan Witkop