The first Atlantic tropical storm of 2010 will be called Alex, the fifth Earl and the ninth Igor. Earthquakes are generally named by the cities or countries they strike, floods for the towns they swamp.
But how does an oil spill get its name?
The Exxon Valdez, which ruptured in Prince William Sound, is synonymous with its spill, and the company that owned the tanker. But a broad geographic descriptor "Gulf oil spill" seems to have emerged as the name of choice for the latest manmade disaster. That's what turns up most frequently in headlines, commentary and Google searches.
Why doesn't the brand include BP, the owner of the oil? Or Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded spectacularly to catalyze the leak? Or the rig's owner, Transocean? Or Halliburton, which is responsible for some of the failed cementing work? Or Cameron International Corp., which made the "blowout preventer" that didn't prevent the blowout? For that matter, why not call it the MMS spill, for the Minerals Management Service that failed to regulate the offshore oil industry?
It's not that any of these companies quietly scored a PR victory by having their names excluded from the brand, according to David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked on both the Exxon Valdez and Gulf oil spills.
"I think it's named by the weight of what people say. There isn't a branding campaign. There wasn't in Alaska and I haven't seen any now. I think of this one as the Deepwater Horizon incident. It's BP's oil, it was Transocean's rig, Halliburton did the cementing and Cameron made the blowout valve," Pettit said. "In Exxon Valdez, it was easy. The boat hit a rock."
He agrees with some other environmentalists, however, that Gulf oil spill is good branding however accidental for their larger aims. Environmental groups have been arguing that the spill is evidence that President Obama's proposal to expand offshore oil drilling, not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but also off the Mid Atlantic and Alaska, is dangerous. The president himself has argued that the spill is evidence that the country needs to start weaning itself off oil, foreign or domestic.
"I think there's an advantage to not calling it The BP Spill because I'm not sure it makes any difference that it's BP's oil or Shell's or Exxon's or anybody else's," Pettit said. "If it had been Shell or Exxon versus BP, would it have been any different? The focus needs to be on the larger issue: Do we need to be drilling offshore? And if we do, do we know what we're doing?"
Nick Berning, director of public advocacy and communications for Friends of Earth, agreed.
"We want BP to be held accountable, certainly. But at the same time, we dont want to make BP the scapegoat for a broader problem, which is our inherently dirty and destructive reliance on oil and the fact that the government hasn't put in place sufficient policies to move us to cleaner fuel sources," Berning said. "It wont do us any good if people boycott BP but just keep buying the same amount of gas from other vendors. We need to get off of oil."
Possibly because there's not a consistent effort to brand the spill, though, some are trying to alter the linguistic trend before the spill's brand is solidified in the public's consciousness.
"I've switched to calling it the BP Gulf Spill," said Michael Gravitz, an oceans advocate for Environment America.
Oh, and there's that little matter of the word "spill" being used to describe the 90-million-gallon-and-counting gush of oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, not only on the surface but in billows deep underwater.
"'Leak' is totally wrong. A leak is something you wrap duct tape around and maybe get to next week, next month or next year. The 'gusher in the Gulf' sounds way too cute. It's not exactly a spill: that's maybe something between your kitchen and your dining room table. 'Spill' sounds like a pool. It's two-dimensional. This is very much a three-dimensional or, rather, a four-dimensional catastrophe," said Douglas N. Rader, chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. "I think a whole new language is going to have to be developed to discuss accidents events environmental catastrophes of this magnitude. Nothing quite like it exists."
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