The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Where’s the Oil?

Over the three months since the catastrophic failure of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I have resisted commented on the story, waiting for clarity. During that time, BP, a company that is clearly culpable for the spill, has been demonized by politicians, the media, and much of the public. Ironically, during the same period of time, President Obama has been harshly criticized (unfairly, in my view) for his lack of action, even though the problem (both the rig failure and subsequent response) was highly technical and there wasn’t much that a politician could do.

As the months passed, we were told by the likes of CNN’s Anderson Cooper (who covered of the story as if it was the only important news story on the planet) that the world faced “an environmental catastrophe” of epic proportions, that the ecosystem in the Gulf was on the verge of destruction, and that the Gulf’s fishing industry and broader economy would be destroyed.

And then, as BP engineers finally developed and implemented a solution, questions about magnitude of the ecological impact began to trickle out of the media.

In a surprising thorough and honest assessment of the spill, Michael Grunwald in Time Magazine (a publication whose past sympathies have been predictably Left-leaning and environmentally alarmist) presents hard scientific data from reputable scientists that brings many of the earlier hyperbolic “environmental catastrophe” claims into question:
The Deepwater explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it's no leak; it's the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It's also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez. Yes, we've heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but, so far, wildlife response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of any mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And, yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana's disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but, so far, shorelines assessment teams have only found about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year.

The point to be made here isn’t that the oil spill wasn’t a serious event. It was, and efforts to correct it (e.g., the use of dispersants) may have unintended long-term consequences. But demonization of those who were working feverishly to fix the problem, threats of prosecution (by AG Eric Holder) as corrective actions were being conducted, and counter-factual claims of impending doom before any scientific data had been gathered were irresponsible.

Now three months (not three years or three decades—three months) after the disaster, the media is having a hard time finding any oil in the Gulf waters. Grunwald explains:
The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater Horizon oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is comparatively light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Prince William Sound, is balmy at more than 85 degrees, which also helps bacteria break down oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. Finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient.

Like most serious accidents, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could have been avoided before it happened and remedied more rapidly once it did. But that’s an easy claim with 20-20 hindsight. Thankfully, it looks like the politicians and the media were wrong in their predictions of utter disaster. It now appears that the Gulf will make a comeback much more rapidly than originally predicted. I wonder if Anderson Cooper will spend any time on that story.