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Environmental Crime on Trial

Students probe the BP oil spill
Environmental Crime on Trial

Images of oil-covered pelicans, sludge-soaked beaches, billowing black smoke, water on fire, and underwater plumes filled TV screens for 87 days. Reporters interviewed irate fishermen, their boats dry-docked and their lives upended. People across the United States were appalled and angry. So were my students.

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill coincided with my first year of teaching modern world history at a high school in Portland, Oregon. The year was about to end, and I was just wrapping up a unit on World War II. U.S. intervention in Latin America was next and time was running out. I hadn’t taught my students about energy policy or modern day environmental issues, so when I woke up that Tuesday morning to the unfolding drama, I felt unprepared to help them make sense of the spill. I did project live video streams of the underwater camera for a few minutes during daily warm-ups so we could follow the progress, or lack of progress, of BP’s efforts to “kill the spill.”

This was the worst oil spill in our nation’s history, with more than 200 million gallons of oil released into the ocean and more than 16,000 miles of coast contaminated. Some news stations compared the spill to the Exxon Valdez incident of 1989, which I remember from my own childhood. As an 8th grader, I was stunned by the images of people in white jumpsuits spraying hot water as they tried to clean coastal rocks. I couldn’t focus on my classes for a week. None of my teachers addressed it.

“It’s awful and so, so, sad,” Lisbeth wrote in her warm-up journal after watching the live feed one morning. “All those turtles and dolphins and birds.” Other students echoed her sentiments.

Some, like Zach, focused their ire on the most obvious culprit, the company from whose well the poison gushed: “It’ll probably take years for BP to clean that mess up.”

I knew I had not done enough to deepen Zach or Lisbeth’s understanding of the spill beyond the sound bites that flowed from pundits’ mouths. Of course BP was culpable. But what about the regulators who green-light projects like this every year? What about consumers who purchase and drive gas-guzzling SUVs? How about the capitalist system that demands consumption and rewards greedy natural resource speculation and extraction? As the school year ended, I regretted that my minimal instruction on the oil spill had done little more than contribute to students’ sense of sadness and helplessness.

Katherine Welles /

I want my students to understand the historical roots of injustices and I want them to explore the social movements that addressed those issues in the past. But even the most social and environmental justice-oriented curriculum feels irrelevant if it does not connect to today’s world. After all, historical roots grew into the tangled thorns and brambles we face today, and kids need the vision and skills to take on today’s challenges.

The oil was still spewing as the summer began, and I vowed to build real curriculum around this pressing present-day issue. It wasn’t too late to teach about oil spills. In fact, every year dozens of oil spills pollute our oceans, rivers, and lands as the demand for oil and fossil fuels increases. Learning about the Gulf oil spill can help students think about the relationships among people, government, business, communities, and the environment. Until people understand those relationships and their dysfunctions, we’ll continue to see these horrific scenes play out year after year.

At the Oregon Writing Project’s Summer Institute, I teamed up with Amy Lindahl, a biology teacher from a neighboring Portland high school. We decided that a trial role play would be the best way to help students explore the causes of the spill. We would turn our classrooms into courtrooms to help students grapple with this guiding question: Who or what is responsible for the devastation caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? We designed the role play and wrote detailed “indictments” against BP, the U.S. government, the people of the United States, the people of the Gulf of Mexico, and global capitalism (see Resources).

The next fall, I taught the role play as part of a mini-unit at the beginning of a schoolwide teach-in about the environment. I opened the lesson by playing images of oil-covered seabirds, mammals, and wetlands; and underwater footage of the oil billowing into the ocean. Without explaining the context, I asked students to describe what they saw and any feelings that arose.

Joan wrote: “In this slide show, I see oil, oil being pumped out of the ground, oil leaking into the water, covering and killing animals. Polluted beaches. Destroyed jobs, hobbies, and lives.”

Kevin wrote: “A lot of fun activities are gone. The signs say ‘the death of summer, the death of fishing and crabbing and playing on the beach.’ What do they do now? What if this happened here in Portland?”

After the students read their responses to partners, I asked the class what they knew about the past summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Most students had watched clips on TV and explained to those who didn’t know the basic facts about the spill in deep water off the Louisiana shore. Then I asked students: “Who or what was at fault?” All but four of my students said “BP” or “the oil company.”

“Today and tomorrow,” I told them, “this classroom will be transformed into a courtroom. In this role play, I will be the prosecutor and you will be the defendants. You are all charged with the crime of damaging the ecosystem and economy of the Gulf of Mexico. Before we start, it’s important to know more about the damage caused by the oil spill and the toxic chemicals sprayed on the oily water.”

I organized students into six groups of five. I gave each group a paragraph containing an excerpt from an article about the effects of the spill (see Resources). They took turns reading the paragraphs out loud, and the group determined whether it referred to damage done to human health, the economy, marine life, or natural scenery. For example, Ellie read a quote from Louisiana resident Margaret Curole in Terry Tempest Williams’ Orion article “The Gulf Between Us”:

The [clean up] workers are getting sick with contact dermatitis, respiratory infections, nausea, and God knows what else. The BP representatives say all it is is food poisoning or dehydration. If it was just food poisoning or not enough water, why were the workers’ clothes confiscated? As we say in these parts, answer me dat!

Marco read a paragraph from the same article about the damage to marine life:

We had a very small pod of sperm whales in the Gulf, nobody’s seen ’em. Guys on the water say they died in the spill and their bodies were hacked up and taken away. . . . Dolphins are choking on the surface. Fish are swimming in circles, gasping.

From the article excerpts, students learned that long after the spill, fish in the Gulf had open sores, mysterious black lesions, and parasitic infections; and that people who subsist on wild-caught seafood were ingesting dangerous chemicals. Commercial fishing dropped by 20 percent, and the tourism industry suffered massive economic hardship in the years following the spill. When marsh plants died from oil pollution, roots gave way and sediment could no longer withstand the tides that eroded miles of natural storm barriers into the ocean.

“You Are Charged . . .”

After students shared and classified the paragraphs, I explained that each group represented a possible defendant—an entity that might have some responsibility for the spill. I distributed the indictments to each group—who now represented BP, the U.S. government, the people of the United States, and global capitalism. The first paragraph of all the indictments is the same, and I read it aloud:

You are charged with causing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Through carelessness and self-interest, you have set a disaster in motion that is killing this region. Because of your irresponsible actions, vast regions of the Gulf are turning into a dead zone; ecosystems and endangered species will be destroyed. Human communities, jobs, and economies will be devastated.

I explained that the groups would need to read their role, identify information most damaging to their group, and build a defense. Each member of the group would need to present at least a portion of their case, so they would all need to be involved. I reminded them that sometimes the best defense is a good offense, so they might want to accuse at least one other group during their testimony. Any group accused during testimony could ask one question back at the defendants, so they should anticipate the types of questions they might get asked, and prepare to address them with evidence from their roles. I provided a graphic organizer to help them compile their defense.

The mellow buzz of reading aloud filled the room. “You allowed companies to write their own rules. . . . Some of your agency employees are former oil executives,” read Jasmine, representing the U.S. government. Her group let out a collective moan. “Oh, man,” blurted Michael. “We might as well save the time and just put our group in jail.”

“What are you complaining about?” countered Monica, a BP group member sitting in a nearby cluster of desks. “We’ve definitely got the hardest role.”

I used the interaction as an opportunity to point out to all groups that the roles contained possible defenses that might help them figure out their arguments. I also handed groups a complete set of the roles in case they wanted to do some research into other groups’ vulnerabilities. “Lawyers always read and research carefully,” I said. “Good lawyers turn that research into strong arguments.” That was the encouragement they needed. Some groups divided up the research. Others used their cell phones to investigate more details about the spill online. All students were keenly engaged.

For the remainder of the period, students filled out the graphic organizers with defense arguments and accusations against other groups. They made lists of questions they could ask. Finally, after dividing up the main points, each student wrote a paragraph that would be used in the opening statements. Students who did not finish their opening paragraphs completed it as homework.

The next day we began the trial. Our jury members—an instructional specialist and another teacher—entered the room carrying notebooks and wearing “Jury” signs. I’ve found that when students have authentic audience members, they often rise to the occasion with better performances and more careful arguments.

To kick off the trial, I re-read the common indictment and key passages of the first indictment, the one against the people of the United States:

It’s your job to learn all you can and push your elected representatives to regulate corporations. You could have joined with your neighbors to organize and pressure the government to reduce its use of fossil fuels. You could have demanded more fuel-efficient cars, but instead you drive and purchase gas-guzzlers.

One by one, members of that group made their case. Jared’s analogy was effective: “Yeah, we’re addicted to oil. We can’t help it. Blaming us for that is like blaming a baby for being born to a meth-addicted mom. Of course we get addicted. The government and the capitalist system keep teaching us to stay addicted.”

Juan added: “The president doesn’t talk about the problems of oil consumption. Isn’t it the government’s job to educate the citizens?”

Because they were attacked, I allowed the government to respond with questions. Charlotte asked: “Why are you blaming us? Don’t we live in a democracy? Aren’t you, the people, in charge?”

Kate responded: “It’s hard for people to make the right decisions when the government and BP don’t tell us what’s going on.”

These exchanges were not always orderly, and they didn’t resemble an actual court of law. At first, I was uncomfortable with this dynamic and frequently pounded my makeshift stapler gavel. Eventually I realized the sometimes raucous discussion was leading to a deeper understanding of the issues. My students were arguing over resource consumption, democracy, capitalism, and corporate ethics. They were demanding clean energy and government oversight. They could barely remain in their seats as they grappled with these issues. We were going way beyond the simplistic “shame on BP” analysis from the year before.

One by one, the groups took the stand. The people of the Gulf of Mexico tried to explain how tough it is to say no to companies like BP when oil jobs help them stay afloat. Plus, weren’t they helping keep the country from having to get oil from Iraq? Students representing capitalism claimed companies like BP were abusing the system. Doesn’t the government create the system? Noah argued, “If people bought more green technology, the system would make more green technology.” The government continued pointing to the trade-offs, including the need to have a strong economy and the need for the people of the United States to become more informed consumers. Shouldn’t more people vote with their wallets?

The BP group used an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach: Why didn’t the government enforce the law? Isn’t the company just doing what companies do under capitalism—try to make money? Don’t people want low prices?

After all the groups had their say, they were given one minute to read closing remarks, which were essentially summaries of their strongest arguments. Jamila, representing the U.S. government, explained why we should not let BP off the hook:

When we let companies like BP drill for oil, we trust them to follow safety rules and do a good job. BP is to blame because they betrayed our trust with carelessness and greed. Since 2007, they’ve had 760 major safety violations, while they mislead the American public with their “beyond petroleum” [branding]. They’re not beyond petroleum and we shouldn’t let them be beyond the law. We must make them pay.

In his follow-up to Jamila’s statement, Mike showed his understanding of the connections at play:

Ladies and gentlemen of the court, we, British Petroleum, plead partially guilty. But the high demand for oil from the American people forces us to set up rigs in dangerous places. Doing so leads to safety violations, but the government never stopped us. We’re a company and our only responsibility is to please our shareholders. That’s a lot of pressure. Please go easy on us since everyone in this room brought on this tragedy.

A Broader View

I sent the jury into the hall to deliberate and asked students to step out of their roles as defendants and to step back into their roles as students. They were to consider the evidence presented in the trial and then write about who they thought was ultimately responsible. I encouraged them to assign percentage blame to each of the defendants and explain their thinking. While they wrote, I played Mos Def and Trombone Shorty’s song about the oil spill, “It Ain’t My Fault,” and Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Go Near the Water” for background music.

Before the jury delivered its verdict, I called on several students to share their thoughts on who was to blame. Many students listed BP as the primary culprit, but most students also included the U.S. government and the people of the United States as sharing some of the blame. Justin read from his response:

BP is directly at fault for their carelessness, but so are the American people. We consume so much oil by driving big cars and buying food shipped long distances. Our demand causes BP to drill in hazardous and risky places. The government allows companies to do this—they knew BP had such a poor record of performance.

Despite the feisty arguments made against people of the Gulf of Mexico’s testimony, students consistently ranked them as the least at fault. This wasn’t surprising, given the amount of time we spent learning about the health, economic, and environmental damage suffered in the region.

Capitalism consistently scored low on students’ blame scale. Most students thought it was just too hard to convict a system for the crime. Kenyon wrote: “Capitalism is only about 5-10 percent guilty. It’s a system controlled by people and the government. It’s an idea. Yeah, it makes people greedy, but people don’t blame the system for that until something goes wrong.”

“Did anybody choose global capitalism as the most to blame?” I asked. Not a single student raised a hand. “Why not?”

Ellington responded: “Because people are responsible for doing something about the problems of the world, not the system. Capitalism is about profit, but people make those rules. Yeah, sometimes it’s messed up, but people interpret rules for themselves, so people have to be the ones responsible.”

Leah added: “Like if a driver crashes a car and kills a person, you can’t blame the car. You can blame the driver, but not the car.”

“But what,” I asked, “if the metaphorical car was dangerous because it was made with shoddy materials because the car company wanted to maximize profits? What if the road didn’t have proper stoplights because of cost concerns? Surely systems and social structures that encourage reckless behavior own some blame for many of our world’s problems.”

With the end of class looming, I invited the teachers on the jury to announce their decision. They found the people of the Gulf of Mexico 10 percent at fault. the capitalist system received 15 percent guilt. The U.S. government was given 20 percent of the blame. The people of the United States were assigned 25 percent of the guilt. Finally, the jury announced that BP shoulders most of the blame, 30 percent, for taking risks and for deceiving the public.

Final Project

The next day, to conclude the mini-unit, I asked students to complete an action project for display at the school’s upcoming sustainability fair. The class split into two groups.

John had recently returned from a national global warming conference, Power Shift, where he heard green jobs activist Van Jones speak about the damage petroleum can wreak even if it gets safely to shore. For example, plastic bags kill birds and take hundreds of years to decompose. John persuaded half the class to organize a campaign to support a local effort to ban plastic bags. The students read and printed short articles about the issue. Then they created and printed post cards urging Portland’s mayor to support the “Ban the Bag” initiative. At the fair, they handed out the articles and asked attendees to sign the postcards.

The other group of students decided to put together a poster with images from the Gulf oil spill. They chose quotes to strengthen the impact of the images and included poetry they had written earlier in the unit.

At the fair, my students took shifts staffing their displays and talking with the teachers, students, and community members. They were passionate and urgent. Many, like Karen, who is normally shy and withdrawn, beckoned strangers to their table to talk about the spill. Taking this lesson outside the classroom gave students a sense of agency. I didn’t want them ending with despair because despair leads to hopelessness, which only reinforces the behaviors that got us to the oil spill in the first place. Bringing their final projects to the sustainability fair helped us end on a positive note.

Thinking About Next Time.

Overall, the trial deepened students’ understanding about the oil spill, and it pushed them to see this disaster as a complex problem rather than a simple story of corporate irresponsibility. The trial format and the task of assigning guilt were helpful in creating intellectual tension that hooked students into the readings and discussion. This led to high engagement.

But the format and my facilitation were also limited. Students remained shallow in their analysis of capitalism’s role in the spill, and they only showed a vague sense of how systems can perpetuate or even encourage harmful behaviors and decisions. However, Ellington’s point about people being ultimately responsible for the rules of the game was an indication that the students felt they had a role to play. As Robert Reich said in a recent Democracy Now! interview: “The economy is not something out there, it is not a state of nature; the economy is a set of rules. . . . And if our rules are generating outcomes that are unfair . . . we change the rules.” These are ideas I wish I had pressed with my students. One of my aims was to get them thinking more systematically, but I was unprepared to facilitate the deeper discussion.

When I teach this in the future, I want to have students spend time after the trial reading articles that make more explicit connections among BP, the U.S. government, and global capitalism. I would also have students draw concept maps or make metaphorical drawings to give them a chance to illustrate their understanding of these connections.

And, unfortunately, I know I will be teaching this in the future. The impact of offshore drilling is only becoming more dire. And the response lags far behind the need.

For example, after a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969, Congress and the president drafted and signed into law several powerful modern environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In contrast, today, three years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, no major new policies have been passed, and people in the Gulf are still wrangling to get BP to pay for damages from the spill. More than a year ago, a federal judge approved a $9.2 billion spill settlement, but legal appeals just ended. In the real-life litigation, the defendants are limited to BP and the oil contractors who built and operated the wells. The people of the United States, the U.S. government, the people of the Gulf, and the global capitalist system are not on trial.

But my students got to see a more nuanced reality, complicated by the interconnections of corporations, consumers, government agencies, economic systems, and folks hungry for jobs. At least for a day, my students took action on behalf of people, clean water, and healthy ecosystems.