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Will capping the well “put an end to the environmental disaster”?

July 14th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Words and framing matter.

When we consider the situation in the Gulf of Mexico, with the disastrous gushing of oil due to the (seemingly) criminal negligence of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling, moving forward to ending the flow of oil into the Gulf would be a significant move forward and something that we want to happen.

However, how should this be described.

On the front page of today’s Washington Post, the first paragraph of Joel Achenbach’s article BP delays ‘integrity test’ on well that could lead to oil gusher’s end reads as follows:

The “integrity test” that could potentially shut down the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher has been delayed until at least Wednesday, a setback in the effort to put an end to what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

We could parse this paragraph in many ways (such as how does one define “worst environmental disaster” — immediate one incident impact (clearly this is the worst, without question) or is it the longer term impacts (as bad as this is, the long-term impacts of the nation’s burning of fossil fuels (especially, but not solely, coal) creates a far worst disaster). However, Achenbach’s words have a serious problem: “put an end”.

Very simply, capping the well will not “put an end” to the “environmental disaster”.

Shutting down the gushing oil will “put an end” to the worsening of the situation in terms of additional oil being added into the environment.  It will not “put an end” to the disaster, with impacts that will extend for decades to come, and won’t even bring an end to the worsening of the disaster in terms of the continued spread and increasing impact of the oil on nature and humanity.

Words matter.

Framing matters.

Too few Americans understand of how destructive BP’s criminal negligence will be for the Gulf and for the nation.

Too few Americans understand how moving fossil fuel exploration into ever more difficult environments increases the risk that even well-run operations will have catastrophic disasters.

Too few Americans demonstrate a comprehension of how our oil addiction is driving the fossil fuel industry into ever more dangerous practices.

Words that imply ‘everything is okay, the well’s been capped, go back to the latest Bachelor on TV diversion’ undermine our ability to improve Americans’ understanding of the catastrophe in the Gulf that will continue to unfold, for years and decades to come, even after the well is capped.


Mike Casey at Scaling Green focuses on another gratuitous and misleading word choice in The Washington Post this week.

Monday’s Washington Post piece, “Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists was right, but not complete. So far, the BP oil disaster has brought tar balls and Tony Hayward into the public arena, but it has not brought about the dramatic sea change needed to move America to a clean energy future.

The piece is marred by its gratuitous repetition of the word “scandal” to describe the manufactured controversy around the content of emails that were illegally stolen by who-knows-which fossil fuel interest. The emails aren’t scandalous, and three separate commissions have said so. As other bloggers have noted, there was no scandal but a theft of intellectual property. The outrage is that the media pays so little attention to getting to the bottom of who stole the emails in the first place.

Josh Nelson, at Enviroknow, also addresses this article in the excellent post: WaPo Uses Misleading Arguments to Push Flawed Oil Spill Narrative. Josh calls the reporters to account for getting the history wrong (not acknowledging that Earth Day occurred amid many environmental challenges and over a year after the Santa Barbara spill), failing to acknowledge that public opinion has already seen significant shifts on questions like support for offshore drilling, and simply getting the facts wrong in asserting that US oil use increased from 2009 to 2010 when US government Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers show a 800,000 barrels/day drop.

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Tags: BP · Energy · OilApocalypse · oilpocalyse · politics · Washington Post

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