The Gulf Oil Spill: Who Can You Trust?

An aerial shot of the oil spill. Jae C. Hong / AP

Last week, we tried to figure out whom you could trust when it came to oil-spill spin. But as the slick spreads, so does the blame. Amid the finger pointing and false reports, polls indicate that the public isn’t putting its confidence in anyone just yet. Perhaps that’s why the federal government has been on the offensive: on Tuesday, President Obama met with the co-chairmen of his oil-spill commission and, in a statement to the press, pledged to make whatever changes are deemed necessary to avoid future catastrophes. Meanwhile, responders to the current spill have now put the failed “top kill” behind them and are preparing to use a riskier containment method to get the leak under control. So whom can you trust today? An update to our guide:


Bill Nye
The Science Guy

The former children’s television host is now showing up in numerous media outlets, explaining the basics of the spill. A mechanical engineer by training, Nye is quick to defend the BP engineers tasked with capping the spill. (He also claims to have “small experience” working in spill control; he “worked for a shipyard that built the world’s premier oil-slick skimming boat,” which he says gave him an appreciation for how difficult such cleanups can be). But his handy how-tos don’t come unencumbered by opinion: Nye believes that science will fix this problem (and thus defends BP engineers), but is critical of lax regulations that contributed to its cause. He also sees the spill as a good excuse to make some big changes to reduce our dependence on oil.

trust-update-oil-spill Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Barack Obama

As public opinion has become increasingly hostile toward the government, Obama has come out swinging. The president is assembling a new commission devoted to getting at the truth behind the spill. He vowed to punish anyone found to be breaking existing laws and to create new laws if the ones in place are too lax. For a while, it seemed like the government party line was to defer to BP on the theory that the oil company had both the money and the technology to cap the spill. But as BP has failed to do just that over the past month, Obama and his team are no longer playing nice—at least, not in front of the cameras.


thad-allen Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Thad Allen
National Incident Commander

Earlier, we singled out Allen for being a straight shooter, but even he is not immune to spin. Twice last week, he gave a positive outlook on BP’s various top-kill procedures, which later were declared failures. Not only that, but in both cases, BP had suspended those efforts well before Allen gave his morning reports. Allen never lied, but his statements have been vague and in some cases, misleading. In reference to the top kill, he told the Los Angeles Times that “we’ll get this under control.” From such a formerly plain-talking source, it sure seemed like a declaration of victory. The statement wasn’t false—Allen still believed the top kill would work—but it hid a lot of the problems that eventually proved fatal. As a result, it’s hard to trust Allen for unvarnished truth. He’s now the main government source of spill updates (see Landry, below), so we’ll see if his track record improves in the coming days.

Tony Hayward

60587954,x-default Sean Gardner / Pool-Getty Images

Not that there was ever much of an expectation that the BP head would be a font of unbiased info, but Hayward did have some cred thanks to an endorsement from Thad Allen. Hayward has lost even more credibility with his declaration to reporters that he “wanted his life back” from all this pesky post-spill fallout. He’s also challenged scientific reports of massive “plumes” of diffuse oil lurking deep in the sea, claiming that since oil floats, all of it will come to the surface. Scientists say this is not the case. Plus, Hayward seems to be ignoring the fact that the million gallons of dispersant his company has sprayed onto the oil break it into finer droplets that sink more easily.


Mary Landry
Rear Admiral, Coast Guard

trust-update-oilspill-landry-hsmall Derick E. Hingle / AP

As of this week, Landry is no longer the on-scene coordinator, and the joint briefings she held with BP will also come to an end. Landry is heading back to work on hurricane preparedness. She’s being replaced by Rear Adm. James A Watson, and Allen will do the government briefings, sans BP, from now on. CBS News cites the White House as saying “that no one was unhappy with Landry, only with the arrangement in which the government and BP shared a microphone.”

Doug Suttles
BP Chief Operating Officer

trust-update-oilspill-suttles-hsmall Chris Graythen / Getty Images

There was no assumption that Suttles would be unbiased —he is, after all, the BP spokesperson—and he was careful never to overpromise or tell outright lies. But after presenting—and in some case endorsing—spill-control methods that turned out to be failures, his credibility is wearing thin. This week, we’ve already seen less of Suttles and more of Bob Dudley, BP’s managing director. Since Memorial Day weekend, Dudley has been quoted by several news outlets; he’s also making the TV appearances that were once Suttle’s domain.