Thursday, May 6, 2010

"The New Orleans spill"? Nope. Not even close.

Posted By on Thu, May 6, 2010 at 9:55 PM

Last week we brought up the topic of what to call the manmade cock-up that continues to gush thousands of gallons of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico. "Spill" isn't right; it implies something finite, while this is an ongoing flow. And then there's the question of labeling the gusher ... a dicey proposition for a company like BP, which has got to be quaking at the thought of this labeled forever and ever in the press as the BP Oil Disaster.

Turns out we're not the only ones looking for the right nomenclature. In today's Washington Post, Paul Farhi asks:

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 story, titled "BP Touts Itself as 'Green,' But Faces PR Disaster With 'BP Oil Spill," looks at what goes into naming a disaster, a topic not covered in the AP stylebook.

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 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 [chief executive Paul] 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.

Turns out there's no set way of referring to this sort of thing; the name eventually develops on its own, and it's clear BP is trying to make sure it doesn't get covered in the oily goo of disaster nomenclature (a la Exxon, forever married to the Exxon Valdez disaster). But who better worse to ask what to call this thing than a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute?

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).

"The New Orleans spill"????

Uh, no. One, it's not a spill. Two, New Orleans has nothing, nada, zippo to do with it. The American Petroleum Institute, BP, national media: you're not going to lay this one on us.

We're about 70 miles from Venice, La., and even farther from the site of the BP disaster itself. Calling it "the New Orleans spill" would be about as geographically accurate as calling the attempting Times Square carbombing "the Philadelphia carbombing."

So: I don't know what we as a nation will end up calling this, but BP and the national media -- you can get "the New Orleans spill" right out of your heads.

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