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March 10, 2006

What’s in a Paragraph?

If you only read a newswire story on the recent oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope, you probably didn’t notice the absence of British Petroleum’s hole-riddled history at its Prudhoe Bay facilities. If you only read our story on it, you probably thought the four sentences we gave the subject were standard background in every story on the web.

In fact, aside from the local Alaskan media, The NewStandard seems to be the only (or one of the only, I can’t claim a truly exhaustive search) news outlet putting the latest spill into its proper context.

Our four sentences on BPs history with oil leaks at Prudhoe Bay might seem like standard news fare:

BP’s Prudhoe Bay operations have a leaky history. In 2003, the Anchorage Daily News reported on a leak discovered by BP workers that had possibly gone undetected for months, expelling around 6,000 gallons of oil and oily water into the environment. In June 2002, ADEC had fined BP $150,000 for failing to install a leak-detection system on its crude oil transmission pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay area, according to news reports from that time. In 2001, BP spilled thousands of gallons of oil into a freshwater lake. But according to the Anchorage Daily News, ADEC said that leak may have continued for days before detection by workers.

But, the truth is, these 107 words took two NewStandard editors working together for an hour to research. We started with a Wilderness Society report that included information about BP’s spill history, but we didn’t want to take that group’s word for it without corroborating. So, we tried the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation website for an archive of fines they have levied against BP. But unfortunately, they don’t keep that kind of history readily available for the public. Then we went to BP’s own website. The company does have some information about when it has been fined by environmental regulators, but they also did not have information from before 2003 archived on their website.

So then we turned to Google and Lexis-Nexis for news reports from the time and began the tedious process of following news threads over several years and across publications to make sure we got the stories straight and that we used to most reliable and consistent information to inform our own report. There is a lot of information out there on BP and North Slope oil production. We tried to pick the pieces we found most relevant to the issue at hand.

This morning I scanned the other major US news outlets to see how our reporting on the subject measured up. I found that nearly a week after the leak was detected, the corporate media is still hung up on the "breaking news" details of the story instead of on the deeper implications of what everyone is now realizing is one of the most voluminous oils spills in Alaskan history.

The Associated Press story, which was reprinted on many major news websites, says nothing of either BPs regulatory history or the environmental impact of oil exploitation in Alaska.

A story from Reuters, which was also reprinted by various websites, decided that the most important part of the story was what investors would be most interested in:

A return to full production at the biggest U.S. oil field after a major spill will take a back seat to Alaska's cleanup and emergency response efforts, state environmental officials said on Tuesday.

It continues from there. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

But my favorite was the LA Times, which decided that this information was important to include in a story about a spill that regulators believe was caused by corrosion:

In 2001, a man fired his hunting rifle into the pipeline, creating a leak that spilled about 285,000 gallons onto the tundra and led to a $7-million cleanup. Authorities arrested the 37-year-old hunter and he was convicted on federal weapons charges; it was not considered a terrorist incident. Pipeline operators say that it has been shot at through the years at least 50 times, but that the incident was the first time a bullet had punctured the double-steel-walled pipeline.

A few paragraphs later the Times gets around to mentioning that some people saw this coming, but they report it in the classic "he said, she said" fashion that we have all come to expect from the jerk-you-around-but-never-get-to-the-truth corporate media:

Some industry watchdogs say the aging pipeline will become increasingly vulnerable to corrosion. "It's like a garden hose going bad on you," said Chuck Hamel, a former oil and tanker broker who runs a website that monitors Alaska oil development. "You patch one leak but then you'll get another."

But a spokesman for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., which runs the section of the pipeline that leaked, disputed that characterization. "We have a very aggressive, robust corrosion monitoring program," said the spokesman, Daren Beaudo. He said the company thought it had a "very effective cleanup" going on.

Pipeline operators say that spills have amounted to less than a teaspoon in a swimming pool when compared to the overall volume of oil delivered.

In 1999, six pipeline employees wrote anonymously to federal officials arguing that neglect and maintenance cuts on the pipeline could lead to disaster. "It won't be a single gasket, or valve, or wire, or procedure, or person that will cause the catastrophe," the employees wrote. "It will be a combination of small, perhaps seemingly inconsequential events and conditions that will lead to the accident that we're all dreading and powerless to prevent."

In all those four paragraphs, the Times doesn’t bother to let us know that there have been multiple spills due to corrosion in the last few years. Did they not want to let on who turned out to be right?

The Alaskan media, however, does seem to think BP’s history of leaking all over their tundra is important. The Anchorage Daily News has been running excellent articles on the issue.


derickmoore: Impact?

Since a pipeline isn't like an interstate highway where you can cone off one lane while working on the other one, I'm very curious to know if BP could build a second pipeline, in parallel with the current pipeline, without an environmental impact investigation.

If they could, then I would conclude they were foolish and short-sighted. It isn't just the American public that is hurt, so too are their profits. If I was a share holder I'd be screaming nuts about the situation.

On the other hand, if they had to fight the Greens in court and elsewhere, then I'd blame those people for the problem, and scream at them.

As it is, I'm not much affected either way, and can't work up much ire over the situation!

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.