Wake up, BP, and Restore Wyoming’s Soda Lake
The last thing that the nation's most maligned oil company needs is another black eye. So it remains a mystery why, after being such a good neighbor for so long, it refuses to honor its pledge to maintain one of the most important waterfowl, wading bird, and shorebird habitats on the Central Flyway.
This all leads up to the question: Is BP telling the truth when it says it cares about wildlife and the natural world? Surprisingly, the answer isn't a definite "no." It's more like, "sometimes, depending on who's calling the shots." Browne and Deschamp proved that. Beginning in 2000 BP spent $200 million on its "Beyond Petroleum" PR effort, in which it pledged a commitment to solar energy, replaced its 70-year-old shield logo with the Helios (the Greek sun god) sunburst logo, and attempted to rebrand itself as a friend to the environment. In some ways BP lived up to the new image. It introduced a low-sulfur gasoline in 2001, it invested $110 million in clean-gasoline facilities, and it became the world's largest producer of solar energy.
That's not to say that BP, like all energy companies, doesn't shower in greenwash. During the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010 it spent $93 million on its "Make it Right Campaign"--an attempt to convince the world that it had an environmental conscience. It flooded the media with images of cleanup crews and rehabilitated birds and turtles. Finally, it dismissed its CEO, Tony Hayward, whose foot left little room for his tongue when he addressed the public and who might have made an effective scapegoat had he not been such an obvious liability. The whole effort backfired spectacularly, and at this writing America appears unconvinced that BP is anything but a greedy, reckless, and utterly typical extractive industry.
As things stand now, Soda Lake is becoming a toxic brew. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Pete Ramirez explains that birds entering saline ponds can die when salt crystals on their feathers reduce buoyancy or cause hypothermia. And when they drink or preen, salt can poison them by damaging nerves to the point that their heads droop into the water and they drown. If significant mortality is documented because of what BP has done or isn't doing, it could face criminal prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The company has made enormous investments for birds at Soda Lake, and everything is in place for productive habitat and a world-class wildlife education center. All BP has to do to honor its pledge to keep Soda Lake alive is add a little water to the drying, increasingly toxic lake bed. The water doesn't even have to come from the river or the groundwater under the refinery; it could come from wells and/or from the treated effluent of a nearby housing development.
So why would BP choose to reinforce the villain image it acquired in the Gulf of Mexico instead of resurrecting and promoting the hero image Browne and Deschamp had given it? The answer may be that the company is so huge that major decision makers don't know about the rich PR opportunity being squandered in Casper. Even Stilwell, now deputy operations manager for U.S. assets, expressed surprise when I informed him of Soda Lake's importance to birds.
"When BP had staff in Casper those folks were involved in the community," remarks Andrea Orabona, nongame bird biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "They could go out there and see the public benefits of Soda Lake. Now there's just no ownership. All the work--to create the nesting islands, to shore them up, to dig trenches around them, to dig out the contaminated soil--has gone by the wayside. The islands aren't even islands anymore. The birds are completely vulnerable to predation. This is such an important breeding site for water birds and shorebirds. Restoring Soda Lake is a great opportunity for BP. For a company this size the cost is a drop in the bucket. They have a huge black eye, and we feel they could really use this to their advantage."
"How come they let us in?" I'd asked Bart Rea when he unlocked the sagging gate on one of the access roads to Soda Lake.
"This goes way back to the good old days, when we were all friends," he replied. "We got keys to the gate, and whenever BP changed the locks they'd give us new keys. Now nobody gives a damn, so we just use the old keys to the old locks."
But Soda Lake and its ecosystem can be renewed as easily as the locks, keys, gates, and friendships. BP is fast approaching a crossroads. If it continues in the direction it's headed, it will reaffirm what the public and media have been saying about it since April 2010. If it deviates in the right direction, it can shake part of that image and win back some of its lost hero status. n
What You Can Do
Write BP, urging it to make good on its pledge to save Soda Lake and its wildlife. Enclose a copy of this article or attach a link. The address is BP America Press Office, 501 Westlake Park Blvd., Houston TX 77079-2604. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.