Oil spills are messy business, but you’d think that if any company can mount a crisis response after fouling miles of a pristine river flowing out of Yellowstone National Park with crude, it would be Exxon Mobil.
Since the spill on July 1, the oil giant has been slow to react with substantive, timely responses. Yes, the company has a tab on its website dedicated to the spill, and it has been using @exxonmobil Twitter for responses, but the content is limited. Press releases have only minor updates, especially given the coverage of the 1,000-barrel leak.
It’s still unclear what happened, or how long crude spilled into the river, or how much of the river is affected.
People are starting to notice.
The news media are reporting that Exxon Mobil took almost an hour to seal the pipeline after the accident. That’s almost twice as long as Exxon had publicly stated.
Exxon has offered a clarification from its earlier estimate that the leak’s impact was limited to a 10-mile stretch of the river. This comes after the company softened reports from Montana officials that damage was spread over dozens of miles.
On Wednesday, the media reported that transportation officials said oil was seen observed as far downstream as 240 miles from the leak.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, for one, wants some answers from the oil company. “The best thing they could do at this point is be completely honest,” he said in interviews. “It is clear that their veracity has not been 100 percent to this point.”
Remember, this is coming from a governor of a state that maintains a welcome free-market approach to business, including the energy industry.
Exxon is also “no comment,” “no speculation” on other details. There are no answers to the speculation that the pipeline that crossed the river was somehow damaged due to flooding conditions along the waterway. Or how deep the pipeline was buried under the river, although there has been some speculation that it is 12 feet.
These details are important, and go a long way toward reassuring the public that this was a unique accident having to do with extraordinary conditions, not some foreseeable error.
Going through the motions of a crisis plan is not enough. There has to be some acknowledgment of what happened, what is being done to fix it, and, finally, what steps are being taken so it won’t happen again.
Gov. Schweitzer seemed to nail it with a quote he gave to The Wall Street Journal: “If you’re asking for a grade, I’d give them an ‘incomplete’ right now.”