Environmental activists descended on BP's Houston headquarters on Wednesday morning to mark the start of a slew of protests around the fifth anniversary of the start of the BP oil spill. The first protest was held in BP's lobby and led to six people being arrested.
As the fifth anniversary of the spill approached, Rain Forest Action Network, working in tandem with some Gulf Coast residents, decided to highlight the damage the spill caused to the Gulf by staging a series of protests.
When they were planning the protest, it was obvious that they needed to kick things off with a little civil disobedience in Houston, RAN spokesman Laurel Sutherlin says. "Houston is the energy epicenter of the country and this is where BP's U.S. operations are based, and it's on the Gulf Coast. There's quite a bit of symbolism in it, to go to their Houston headquarters first," Sutherlin says.
The protest started when about 20 people walked into BP's glass atrium of a lobby on Wednesday morning. The group unrolled a small banner, held by a protester dressed as Captain Planet, that said "Extreme Energy Out of Our Communities." They followed up, as BP workers in the lobby stopped to stare, by unfurling another banner about three times larger that read, "Never Again: No Sacrifice Zones."
By this time, the security guards who had materialized within seconds of the crew's entrance were buzzing around urging the protestors to leave, ordering both protestors and employees not to take photos or film the protest. Some protestors sat on the floor in a move of "classic civil disobedience," Sutherlin said. Others were there to do some talking, reading from comments collected from other Gulf Coast residents and from research papers that detail how the BP oil spill damaged the Gulf Coast.
"BP has used false advertising to sell the public a lie. The truth is many have fallen ill due to BP's heavy use of toxic chemicals. Our dolphins and turtles are still dying at unprecedented rates," Cherri Foytlin, a protestor arrested in BP's lobby on Wednesday stated in a release issued by RAN. "Our fisheries still struggle to recover. Our hard working fishing families still suffer economic losses as BP has done everything possible to dodge their responsibilities to a settlement that they helped to write."
(Whether the Gulf has managed to heal from the spill or not is highly disputed with some studies, including one issued on Wednesday from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, indicating that the Gulf has bounced back while others point to dying wildlife and say that the damage was irrevocable.)
Security guards continued to urge the group to leave and they tried to stop people from taking photos or shooting video. The guards cleared the lobby of BP employees and emptied out the building coffee shop, even the people waiting in line for their coffee. Delivery trucks were turned away from the building while the protestors continued to speak out against BP. Within a few minutes the guards were their only audience.
The guards stood around encouraging the protestors to leave while they waited for the Houston Police Department to arrive. The first officer showed up about 20 minutes into the protest and urged the protestors to pack up and leave. After that a lot of police showed up and informed the group that everyone in the lobby not prepared to be arrested needed to clear out. Those who didn't were arrested, as promised.
All but six people left, Sutherlin included. The people who stayed were subsequently arrested by HPD. Bail hadn't been set as of Wednesday night but RAN is prepared to cover the cost of bail for the protestors, though the nonprofit organization will expect to be reimbursed, Sutherlin says.
This is the first of a slew of protests planned by the group. (While Sutherlin says there are a lot of other groups out there that support what they're doing, RAN is working alone on this one.) Today there's a protest planned outside of BP's annual shareholders meeting in London, complete with Gulf Coast residents on hand. Sutherlin said there will be more demonstrations leading up to Monday's fifth anniversary of the start of the spill. They want BP truly held accountable for its actions, he says.
He says that people have forgotten how bad the spill was. The spill started with the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010. The rig was working about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast when it caught fire and then exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 16 others. After the rig went down the exploratory well being drilled was left unplugged slick black petroleum into the Gulf. Over the following weeks the well continued to spew oil and methane gas in the worst environmental accident in U.S. history.
In the ensuing court battle -- the one that BP is still grappling with -- the federal government estimated that the spill released more than 4 million barrels of oil while BP insisted the number was much lower. The judge on the case eventually ruled that about 3 million barrels were spilled. The British-based company has been fighting over how much it should pay in fines for months now.
BP has set aside $42 billion to cover the oil spill and they could ultimately pay about $13.7 billion in fines. Back in February U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans agreed with the federal government that the maximum civil penalty that BP could face is $4,300 per barrel spilled (adding up to about $13.7 billion). Barbier rejected BP's bid to value each barrel at about $3,000 max (which would have brought the fines down to about $9.5 billion, according to Reuters.
"Five years later and we have only minor tweaks on offshore drilling regulations. It's just so widely out of scale to the problem that it is really insulting. What's really needed is a fundamental shift in allowing these big energy companies to plunder our natural resources and get away with this kind of damage," Sutherlin says, referring to the recent regulation changes issued by President Barack Obama. "If the company was going to behave responsibly and to compensate those who have been injured by the spill then five years should have been plenty of time to clear everything up and get that done. They've barely paid anything."
However, BP's spokespeople stuck to the topic of the protest in their email response to our questions. They gave the BP side of the story and it's pretty cut and dry. "Six people trespassed. They were politely asked to leave private property and not disrupt business. They refused and were escorted out by the Houston Police Department."