By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; C01
What do you call a gigantic man-made disaster that is threatening to despoil the ecosystems and wreck the economies of the Gulf Coast? The answer is important, if you happen to be one of the companies responsible for it.
The massive slick spreading toward Louisiana has gone by several names since crude oil began gushing from a damaged drilling rig on April 20. Media accounts have referred to it as "the Gulf oil spill," "the Deepwater Horizon spill" and the "Gulf Coast disaster."
President Obama, leaving little doubt about whom he considers responsible for the epic mess, put a brand name on it in remarks in Louisiana on Sunday. The president dubbed it "the BP oil spill," after the company (formerly British Petroleum) that leased the now-damaged drilling platform. The Environmental Protection Agency refers to it the same way in its official pronouncements.
The name of a disaster can be critical, both as a historic matter and the more immediate matters of image, public relations and legal liability. BP has said it will honor "legitimate" claims from people and businesses seeking compensation from disruption caused by the spill. But since there are likely to be many disputed claims ("This is America -- come on," BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the Times of London on Wednesday), having your company's name inextricably linked to a disaster can't help when a jury begins assigning damages.
BP could face the same fate as another oil giant, Exxon, whose name is forever stamped on the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. That spill was named for the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that hit a reef and ruptured. Other calamities -- plane crashes, the Tylenol poisonings -- have been shorthanded by a corporate or product name, too.
But companies don't always get top billing, even when they acknowledge responsibility. The leak of poisonous chemicals at a plant in Bhopal, India -- which killed as many as 12,000 people -- came to be known more by its place of origin than by the company that owned the plant, Union Carbide. Similarly, the partial meltdown of a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant in 1979 was named after the facility where the incident occurred, Three Mile Island. Few people remember the name of the company that operated the plant and was responsible for its safety, General Public Utilities.
BP has been careful not to invoke its name in regard to the spill. "We refer to it as Gulf of Mexico response," said Andrew Gowers, the company's spokesman. BP's Web site (http://bp.com) avoids any linkage, calling it "the spill" or "Gulf of Mexico response" or "BP's MC252 response," a reference to the rig known formally as Mississippi Canyon 252.
In a series of television interviews on Monday, BP's Hayward tried to thread a tricky needle, taking responsibility for the cleanup but shifting some of the blame to others.
"This wasn't our accident," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "This was a drilling rig operated by another company. It was their people, their systems, their processes. We are responsible not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and for cleaning the situation up."
"You're not responsible for the accident?" host George Stephanopoulos asked, a bit incredulously.
Hayward explained that the explosion occurred on a rig owned by Transocean, a drilling company based in Switzerland, and that the rig was leased by BP. "It was their equipment that's failed; it was their systems and processes that were running it," Hayward said.
Major oil spills are infrequent in the United States, and there's no standard way of naming them, said Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington industry group. The two usual ways are by location ("the New Orleans spill") or by the name of the facility or ship involved (Exxon Valdez, Argo Merchant, Athos 1). Companies typically don't get tarred; the 1969 spill off the coast of Southern California came to be known not by the company that caused it, Union Oil of California, but by where it happened ("the Santa Barbara spill").
Bush said the causes of the current spill are still being determined, making it too early for a consensus name. "I don't think the dust has settled on this yet," he said. "I don't think it's one party or one source. One name may pop up eventually, but I don't know at this point."
For the record, The Washington Post has no formal style on referring to the spill and has used several phrases to describe it, said Marcus Brauchli, the paper's executive editor. The newspaper has used the phrase "BP oil spill" or "BP spill" in its news columns at least three times. The New York Times has used those phrases twice, according to a search of the Nexis database.
Government agencies and environmental groups haven't been so reluctant. The Sierra Club calls the accident "the BP Oil Disaster." Kristina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the organization, said in an interview: "I think the name matters. If you simply call it 'an oil spill,' it implies a minor accident. What we're looking at in the Gulf Coast is much more than that. It's not surprising that BP isn't putting its name on it because they're trying to evade responsibility. From our perspective, they are responsible and they do need to be held accountable."
But investigators have only begun to assemble evidence about what led to the accident last month. In addition to questioning BP and Transocean executives, congressional panels have asked officials from oil-services giant Halliburton to testify at hearings next week. Halliburton was responsible for sealing the pipeline that exploded.
Ultimately, public anger at BP may be tempered by the company's earlier efforts to polish its environmental image, said Larry Parnell, who directs the master's degree program in public relations at George Washington University. Parnell, a former consultant to an oil-industry company, said BP has invested in a "green" image with ads that featured its sunflower logo and the slogan "Beyond Petroleum."
"If you're going to be involved in the energy sector, there are always going to be problems," he said. "That's the nature of the business. But they put their chips in the bank before this disaster. There has to be substance behind the slogans, of course. But they've built up a degree of goodwill and Brownie points that they will do the right thing and not shirk their responsibilities."
But the Sierra Club's Johnson isn't buying it: "They're the ones who have profited from oil and from our oceans. They're the ones who put the Gulf Coast at risk so that they could rake in record profits. A few ads don't change the fact that they're responsible for this now."