BP issued a statement on Tuesday, admitting for the first time that it supplied the oil used in the Wakashio, saying, “On 14 July, BP in Singapore supplied fuel oil to the bulk carrier Wakashio. The fuel was sold to Mitsui OSK Ltd (MOL), the charterer of the vessel.”
However, it denied responsibility for the oil spill, saying “BP absolutely rejects the baseless allegations and insinuations contained in this article,” referring to an article published in Forbes on January 6.
At the center of the controversy is the fact that BP has still not supplied a sample of the experimental ship oil that was used on the giant Japanese bulk carrier, one of the largest ships in the ocean, to the scientists who were requested by the Mauritian Government to conduct an analysis of the oil. On September 30, Mauritius’ Ministry of Environment revealed it had requested an independent analysis of the ship fuel be conducted through Australia’s Maritime Agency, AMSA. A spokesperson for AMSA confirmed in January that BP had still not supplied it with a sample of the VLSFO ship fuel almost six months since the oil spill in August when the request was officially made.
BP has not provided an explanation why it did not provide a sample to Australia’s AMSA when requested in August, nor why it continues to hold out.
Thousands of Mauritians had been exposed to BP’s fuel and are now showing serious health effects. Understanding what chemicals were used in the fuel is crucial to help the impacted communities with the medical treatment they need. It is also critical to address the serious environmental consequences of the oil, which was released into a network of highly protected nature reserves, containing some of the world’s rarest species.
The Wakashio ran aground on the coral reefs of Mauritius in August last year, carrying over 1 million gallons of BP’s experimental ship oil, that has been described as a ‘super-pollutant’ by environmental groups. Around a third of this oil was spilled into Mauritius’ lagoons.
An investigation published in Forbes on December 21 revealed the type of fuel supplied by BP was the highly toxic experimental type of ship oil called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (VLSFO), that was known to cause ship engine problems around the world, and emits higher amounts of harmful carbon dioxide. It had been rushed through regulatory approval by the UN shipping regulator in January 2020, after several years of controversy.
The way that the fuel is blended together has created particular risks for ships around the world. It is for this reason that it is critical to have an original sample of the oil to understand the precise chemical composition and risks that this oil poses to nature, humans, ships and the marine environment. Until now, BP has refused to provide a sample of the oil to any of the authorities that the Mauritian Government had appointed to support its investigation into the oil spill.
BP has also refused to respond to questions about the whereabouts of its samples when approached by Forbes on October 12 and January 6, and instead posted its response on Twitter.
A series of Freedom of Information requests by Greenpeace revealed that BP was approached by scientists trying to fingerprint the oil but were ‘formally stonewalled’ by the $300 billion dollar oil company from supporting the investigation. Instead, U.S. based scientist, Chris Reddy from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was forced to rely on a sample that had been left in the ocean for ten days.
BP’s response on Tuesday leaves several important questions unanswered.
1. Mystery of BP fuel’s impact on the Wakashio’s ship engine
Despite a detailed investigation published in December revealing serious issues caused by VLSFO fuel to ship engines in ships around the world, there has not been any independent analysis conducted of the Wakashio’s ship engines. The tell-tail marks of faulty fuel would be easily visible, and any forensic ship engineer would be able to identify this.
In its statement on Tuesday, BP said, “We are not aware of anything to indicate that fuel quality contributed to the vessel’s grounding. Indeed, initial investigations reported on ship operator MOL’s website in December 2020 point explicitly to safety and navigation issues as the probable cause. They make no reference to mechanical issues.”
However, mysteriously, no images of the critical components of the ship’s engines (which are still on the coral reefs of Mauritius) have been released. It is unclear whether BP has had access to other information that shows that the oil was not responsible for the grounding.
Given the sensitivity about VLSFO that was known at the time of the grounding of the Wakashsio, it is highly irregular for such images not to have been released by investigators. If engine failure was not a cause, these images should have been available to build public trust that the investigation was being transparently handled – there would not be anything commercially sensitive about core components of a ship engine (such as the piston heads, piston rings, filters, purifiers, cylinders of the engines) – especially for an incident of this magnitude that caused a state of emergency in Mauritius.
Not releasing images of these components of the ship’s engine has raised questions about who else would not wish to have such information released publicly.
2. Mystery of the properties of BP’s fuel
Documents from ‘MOL’s Fuel Quality Testing System’ had identified serious flaws with the oil on the Wakashio.
BP has disputed the analysis of the oil that MOL’s Fuel Testing System had provided, but did not release its own analysis of the oil, nor provide a sample for independent verification.
In its statement on January 12, BP said, “The fuel supplied – very low sulphur fuel oil, or VLSFO – fully met the specified standard that is recognized across the international bunkering industry (International Maritime Organisation standard ISO-8217-2020). This was confirmed by separate analyses carried out by BP and an independent inspection company appointed by MOL. MOL raised no concerns about the quality of the oil, nor have the operators of seven other vessels that received the same fuel. A number of the properties of the oil that are alleged in the article do not correspond with these analyses.”
BP have said that properties do not correspond with those from the MOL analysis, and yet they have not released the full results of BP’s own internal analysis. Neither did BP mention whether any properties of its fuel exceeded the safe operating parameters that were highlighted in the Forbes investigation published in December.
Given that fuel supplied by BP caused such a large state of environmental emergency, why is this information such a closely guarded secret? By keeping this information secret, it is hampering the health treatment of those impacted as well as the clean up efforts. Last week, a large new harmful algae bloom was spotted along the coast where the oil spill occurred.
It has been almost six months since the oil spill, and not having this chemical analysis is having a significant impact on the ability of the response teams to be able to diagnose what potential risks the population and nature are now facing. Thousands of sea creatures were found dead months after the ship’s grounding, revealing that Mauritius is only just beginning to see the true impact of how devastating this oil spill really was.
A full understanding of the oil and all its implications for the vessel and impact on the environment is foundational to any major oil spill response, as experts such as Rick Dawson from the U.S. Department of Interior have been saying. “This is the strangest oil cleanup operation I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of oil spills – over 40 in a career spanning four decades. I don’t know what to make of the Wakashio situation in Mauritius. Even the most basic protocols appear to be missing. With the presence of so many international organizations on the ground, I find this puzzling, as there is a standard set of responses that should have just kicked in.”
In October, the world’s leading oil spill analysis laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), working in partnership with Australia’s Curtin University and Western Australian Organic Isotope Geochemistry Centre, were able to analyze a ten day old sample of BP fuel from Mauritius’ waters. They found that the oil was’ ‘unlike anything they had seen before.’ In a statement in October, they remarked at the highly ‘complex,’ ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising’ traits of the oil, which they have never seen in a major oil spill before. They have urgently called for samples of the original oil from the Wakashio to be sent to laboratories for further testing. BP does not appeared to have submitted its sample of the Wakashio oil to WHOI as requested.
3. Mystery of the missing oil samples
It is normal business practice to retain a sample of oil from the refueling operation for at least three months. An organization such as BP should have been storing such samples. This would mean that if there was a dispute or concern about the oil, there was always a sample that could have been set aside and independently analyzed.
BP was approached in August by AMSA and again in October by Forbes about the sample in Singapore (i.e., well within the three month window). However, until now, BP has refused to say where the sample is and why it was not sent to Mauritius or Australia for independent analysis.
The Mauritian Government had appointed Australian authorities to investigate the oil, and in a statement to Forbes on January 11, AMSA confirmed that they had not received any VLSFO fuel to perform their analysis on, saying on January 11, that it had not received a sample of the BP VLSFO oil to analyze. Instead, AMSA revealed that a different type of oil was given to it to help arrange analysis of. More worryingly, it was revealed that, “AMSA understands the oil samples provided were of engine oil rather than very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO).”
Correspondence with BP at the time revealed that Australian scientists said that they were “formally stonewalled by BP” when they had approached BP in August for support with the analysis.
This means that they were blocked from receiving BP’s sample by BP. BP have denied this, and yet has still not provided a sample of the oil for analysis.
Instead, BP’s explanation is even stranger. In a statement on September 12, BP said, “BP has not hindered or impeded any investigation. We received requests for information on the fuel from Australian and Singapore authorities. We referred the Australian authority to MOL, which has the results of the analysis carried out on the oil by the independent inspection company, and we provided the Singapore authority with the results of BP’s own analysis.”
This raises four further serious questions for BP:
- Australia’s AMSA requested the oil for independent testing yet did not receive a sample from BP. Why not?
- BP’s response was to say to AMSA to speak to the vessel operator, MOL. This is not the conduct expected of one of the largest oil companies, when a Government regulator approaches them for assistance in an investigation into a major oil spill. Why did BP not provide AMSA with the sample of oil it had from the fueling operation in Singapore? AMSA had a specific mandate for the oil spill in Mauritius, and could have reached out to MOL separately if it needed to. Why was BP giving ASMA the run-around, and was BP in touch with MOL regarding the the response to AMSA?
- BP said it provided the Singapore authority with the results of BP’s own analysis. This means that BP did not even provide the Singapore authorities with the sample of the oil. It was BP’s own analysis. This also implies this analysis was not conducted by an independent agency. Why is BP referring to supplying the Singapore Authorities with an analysis, when it was Australia – one of the world’s leading maritime and oil spill response nations – whose help Mauritius had sought?
- Most important of all. Where is BP’s sample that it should have retained from the refueling operation in July? This sample is still vital for the ongoing clean up operation and long term monitoring of the region. BP’s statement on Tuesday did not shed any further light on what happened to that sample.
If BP truly believed in its commitment toward biodiversity made by its CEO Bernard Looney supporting Prince Charles on Monday, then there should not have been an issue transporting the oil to Mauritius or submitting a sample of the oil to Australian Government authorities as the Government of Mauritius had requested.
In a joint statement on Monday made with climate advocate Christiana Figueres, the CEO of BP, Bernard Looney said, “Companies are outpacing governments in embracing the Paris goals — which is exactly what the world needs. Governments regulate and incentivize, but actually cutting emissions largely falls on others to implement. Companies have to do much of that — and society has a stake in helping them. How can we accelerate that change further and faster?”
As can be seen from the Mauritius oil spill, the response to BP CEO Bernard Looney is fairly simple: start by being transparent with what was in the fuel it supplied, and ensure proper and professional support for a biodiversity-rich island nation that is now struggling to understand the chemicals spilled into its lagoon.
4. Carbon dioxide emissions of VLSFO
As part of BP’s commitment toward biodiversity and climate change announced with Prince Charles on Monday, BP had promised to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
However, a series of investigations by the Governments of Germany and Finland in February 2020 had revealed that VLSFO produced higher carbon dioxide emissions, not lower emissions.
How does BP reconcile the use of higher carbon dioxide emissions with the ship oil it provides around the world, with the climate commitments its CEO is making publicly?
BP have not revealed whether it has ever provided any of its VLSFO fuel for assessment to independent laboratories – such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute – for assessment of the carbon dioxide emission content of fuel it is supplying to ships around the world.
Environmental NGOs call for independent investigation
Leading environmental organizations have called for a full investigation into the VLSFO fuel scandal, amid reports that it has been the cause of ship failures around the world.
Greenpeace has responded to the revelations that BP was behind the fuel in the Mauritius oil spill by calling for an end to ‘greenwashing.’
Greenpeace’s Melita Steele, has called for radical changes to business practices in the shipping and oil industries. “The oil spill and the damage it brings to Mauritians and to the ocean is the result of our reliance on fossil fuels and a shipping industry that is dragging its feet instead of decarbonizing swiftly, in line with the Paris Agreement. Drilling, transporting and burning fossil fuels drives the climate crisis, and Greenpeace continues to campaign for a future beyond fossil fuels.
The secretive practices of both the shipping and oil industries must be exposed, along with any attempts at greenwashing.”
BP has been approached for a response to the further questions raised by their statement.