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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Oil Spill Whoppers

All sides are spinning the oil disaster. Our roundup — so far.


The April 20 explosion that started oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has prompted a slew of claims and counterclaims about the disaster. What caused it, how it's being handled, the history of drilling accidents in the area – all are subjects ripe for false or misleading statements by politicians and others.

We keep track so you don't have to. Some of the lowlights so far, in no particular order.

  • Some Republicans falsely claimed Obama was slowing the cleanup by not waiving the Jones Act, which actually doesn't apply to the cleanup operations.
  • Obama said he issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. Not quite. Much drilling continues.
  • A Republican governor keeps saying the spill is the first big blowout in the Gulf, failing to note a 1979 disaster that continued for 10 months, and numerous smaller blowouts.
  • A DNC ad claimed that a GOP lawmaker spoke for his party when he said BP deserves an apology. But that apology had already been rejected by other leading Republicans.

There are plenty more where those came from. See our "Analysis" section for a roundup of the oil-spill whoppers we've encountered.


We don't expect this will mark the end of false or misleading claims having to do with the oil spill. After all, crude is still rushing into the Gulf from the ocean floor, hurricane season is upon us, lawsuits are cranking up – and Election Day isn't until November. But here's what we've found so far.

Obama Slows Foreign Cleanup Aid by Not Waiving Jones Act

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Charles Djou, both Republicans, have said that the 1920 Jones Act is standing in the way of foreign ships that could otherwise assist in the cleanup – and that President Barack Obama could waive its requirements but hasn't.

But that's false. No waiver has been needed. The Jones Act requires goods carried between U.S. ports to be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged vessels built in the U.S. and owned by American citizens. The law doesn't apply to ships operating far from the U.S. coastline, skimming oil or performing other such chores and not hauling cargo from one American port to another.

In the case of the BP oil spill, the Jones Act hasn't prevented several foreign-flagged ships from delivering resources and skimming oil. And the administration says it's prepared to expedite requests for waivers, should any be needed.

Oil Spill, Foreign Help and the Jones Act, June 23.

A 'Six-Month Moratorium on Deepwater Drilling'

In his June 15 Oval Office address on the oil spill, Obama made note of the moratorium his administration declared in late May. But he neglected to mention that the stoppage only applies to new drilling, not to work that's already taking place. And shallow-water drilling is unaffected by the order.

Fact-Checking Obama's Oil Speech, June 16

The 'Big Oil Bailout'

A flurry of slick ads and petitions claim taxpayers will foot the bill for the oil spill, and describe this as a “bailout” for BP. But the fact is that nobody is proposing taxpayer assistance for the company, which is legally required to pay all cleanup costs and has also set aside $20 billion — so far — to pay claims for economic damages. Some being accused of favoring a "bailout" have actually proposed to greatly increase the industry's legal liability.

Phony "Big Oil bailout" Claims, May 23

"Bailout" Baloney, July 2

Barbour on Blowouts

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said on two Sunday talk shows that more than 30,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf in the last 50 years and this is the "first time" that anything like the blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig had ever happened.

That's not what we found. In 1979, a deep exploratory well called IXTOC I blew out in the Bahia de Campeche part of the Gulf. That gusher kept spewing oil for nearly 10 months, with some of it fouling U.S. beaches. That's the worst example, but there are others. For example, a blowout, explosion and fire on a rig off Louisiana in 1970 caused four fatalities and 36 injuries, and spilled 53,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf.

Sunday Replay, June 7

Sunday Replay, June 14

Dems Stretch a GOP Apology Too Far

Video of a Republican lawmaker telling BP he was sorry for the way the government has treated the company, replayed ad infinitum on national television, made a lot of Democrats smile. But then Democrats stretched the apology out of shape, with misleading results. In an ad called "How Republicans Would Govern," the Democratic National Committee portrayed Texas Rep. Joe Barton as speaking for his entire party. And on ABC's "This Week," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that Barton's comments illustrated the Republicans' "philosophy."

But in fact other leading Republicans quickly repudiated Barton's comments, and made clear he was not speaking for them or the party. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that he "couldn't disagree with Joe Barton more." While some members of the GOP have agreed with Barton's original statement, it's hardly on its way to becoming part of the party platform.

The Barton Apology, Stretched Too Far, June 24

Sunday Replay, June 21

More Blowout Blowharding

BP's managing director, Robert Dudley, wrongly claimed on two Sunday shows that "blowout preventers" had never failed before.

But an Associated Press investigation found that the large safety devices, which are used on oil wells to seal off flow during emergencies, "have repeatedly broken down at other wells in the years since federal regulators weakened testing requirements." AP found that the devices failed, or were a contributing factor, in at least 14 accidents, mostly since 2005.

And a 1999 Minerals Management Service report found that blowout preventers had failed on 83 wells in a two-year period in the late 1990s on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Sunday Replay, June 1

The Un-American

Is it true that Rand Paul "thinks trying to hold BP accountable is un-American," as Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine claimed on a Fox News Sunday episode? Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey made a similar statement on "Meet the Press."

But Paul, the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, didn't say that. He was responding to two Obama administration officials saying they would keep their "boot on the neck" or "boot on the throat" of BP to do everything possible to deal with the spill. It was the language that Paul said he thought was "un-American," not the notion of holding BP accountable.

Sunday Replay, May 24

Broken Record

Among the many things that have been said of oil companies since the explosion triggered the leak is that they have been making "record profits." Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, said it back in May. Problem is, it's not true. The oil giants made more back in the first quarter of 2008 than they did in the first quarter of this year.

Sunday Replay, May 24

— by Viveca Novak

Correction, July 7: We originally wrote that Barbour had claimed there had been no blowouts like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the last 30 years. In fact, his claim was about the last 50 years.