Documentary on Gulf spill makes invisible seen

by Mark Floegel

October 28, 2014

Marine biologist and Greenpeace Ocean Campaign Director John Hocevar assesses the impact of oil that is coming ashore on Grand Terre Island. Oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon wellhead is devastating the marine environment and coastal communities along the Gulf Coast.

© Kate Davison / Greenpeace

Four and a half years on, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is ripening from news to history. The story will be told many times in its many parts.

Margaret Browns documentary film The Great Invisible is an important contribution to this storys archive. She allows the survivors to tell the story of April 20, 2010 and gives clear descriptions of both the mismanagement that led to the explosion, as well as the muddling of the story by BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

Ms. Brown then focuses on several groups affected by the disaster: survivors of the Deepwater Horizon and the families of the dead men; the fishing-dependent community of Bayou La Batre, Alabama; the oil workers of Morgan City, Louisiana; and the oil professionals gathered at Houstons Offshore Technology Conference, the largest oil and gas trade show in the world.

Brown lets her sources speak for themselves, and her camera speaks too. The stories coincide with everything I saw and heard in the Gulf in 2010 and in the years since: African Americans cleaning tar balls from the beaches with rakes and makeshift implements so white tourists will come back; fishermen shut down by the spill drowning in bureaucracy as they apply for make-work jobs from BP.

Oil from Oil Rig Disaster

A ship drags a boom through oil on the surface of the ocean near the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

I havent spent much time with oil workers. But Im not surprised how theyve been treated by Transocean and BP when no longer deemed useful–as just another expense to be minimized.

The film is not without flaws. While good on holding corporations to account, Ms. Brown lets the Obama administration and certain agencies escape their share of blame. Lax oversight before the blowout is one offense. The same agencies also gave BP far too much control over the response.

Brown does, however, make the excellent point that revenues from oil production are the second largest source of income for the federal government, after taxes. That fact (along with corporate campaign contributions) goes a long way in explaining why our government is more interested in excusing oil companies than regulating them.

Alarger story

The Great Invisible won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this years SXSW festival in Austin. But it is, as noted above, only part of the story. The larger story of oil exploration and extraction wherever it is found is depressingly similar, from corporate carelessness and impunity, to devastation wrought on ecosystems and local communities.

Underwater Life in Dry Tortugas

What we put at risk: Dry Tortugas National Park, off the coast of Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I type, Shell is trying to secure permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea off the north slope of Alaska. Shells 2012 attempt to drill there ended haplessly and averted tragedy only because Shells mistakes occurred so early and so often that the company was never able to find oil.

In the meantime, Federal agencies charged with protecting public resources seem more eager to accommodate Shell than to regulate it, promising to work overtime to help meet Shells 2015 drilling schedule.

At least one other government branch is already dealing with problems. The Coast Guard is tracking a drifting barge in the region with nearly 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard. The Guard may be unable to do anything about it until spring, given conditions in that part of the world.

The Great Invisible. Whats invisible? What you see depends on where you sit, and every view is limited by circumstance. To the oil workers of Morgan City, oil is seen as the indispensible liquid, a boon and a birthright for them and their families. To the survivors of Deep Water Horizon, oil has a much different connotation.

What can the oilmen in Houston see? Smoking their cigars from their high-rise offices, can they see the fishermen of Bayou La Batre, who are only making ends meet through charitable donations? If they could see them, would they care?

Mark Floegel

By Mark Floegel

Mark Floegel is the Research Director with Greenpeace USA. A former journalist, he's been working in public interest advocacy for 30 years, with Greenpeace since 1989. In his current role, Mark helps determine long-range strategic direction for Greenpeace and the execution of Greenpeace campaigns.

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