New York Times Tale on BP Oil Spill: From Bad to Worse

The New York Times ran a story on May 4 that advanced a rather unusual argument: BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill was probably bad, but not that bad.  Helping the paper flesh out that line was a group called the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, which the Times dubbed “a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Texas.” As we pointed out, ProPublica blogger Marian Wang did some digging, and found that “at least half of the 19 members of the group’s board of directors have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry.”  The Times published an Editor’s Note admitting that they should have hinted at this to readers.

But another point the Times made in that piece struck us as rather far-fetched:

The ruptured well, currently pouring an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, could flow for years and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991.

36 BILLION gallons?  This estimate sounded wildly inflated (as Richard Ward pointed out at CounterPunch). And it turns out that it was roughly a hundredfold exaggeration, as the New York Times explained in a correction:

A news analysis article on May 4 about the severity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, misstated the amount of oil that was spilled in 1991 into the Persian Gulf by Iraqi forces in Kuwait.  The agency now puts the figure at 252 million to 336 million gallons — not 36 billion gallons, as it initially estimated.

The paper’s admitting its error, but blaming it on NOAA?  According to the Energy Information Administration, the entire Persian Gulf produced 14 million barrels of crude a day in 1991, the equivalent of 588 million gallons — so a spill the size the Times was claiming would amount to the entire Gulf’s output for two months.  This should have sounded improbable to anyone writing or editing the story.  But since the point of the piece was to downplay the severity of the BP/Deepwater disaster, one can see why that didn’t happen.

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR.  He writes for FAIR’s magazine Extra!, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR’s syndicated radio show CounterSpin.  This article was first published in the FAIR blog on 20 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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