BP Spill Damage Exaggerated?

Now that the flood of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig has been staunched, some are arguing that the prophesied environmental catastrophe was greatly overblown.

Now that the flood of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig has been staunched, some are arguing that the prophesied environmental catastrophe was greatly overblown.   Michael Grunwald for Time:

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 disappearance of more than 2,000 square miles of coastal Louisiana over the last century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.”

Marine scientist Ivor Van Heerden, another former LSU prof who’s working for a spill response contractor, says “there’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts,” says Van Heerden, who, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid out of BP’s spill response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

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. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes, and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I had ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” Van Heerden said.

Much more at the link.   It’s a fascinating contra-conventional wisdom story, although the bottom line seems to be not so much that the disaster was hyped but that we just don’t have the ability to forecast the effects of these incidents with great confidence.   And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.

Let’s hope this is right.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Oil Spill,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    The emphasis is totally wrong.

    I guess the bottom line, and this applies to other environmental issues, is that “uncertainty does not mean best (or worst) case scenario.” It means uncertainty.

    A stupid article that says “maybe uncertainty meas best case after all” is just that. Stupid.

    This quote is particularly bad, and an illustration of that:

    there’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts,” says Van Heerden, who, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid out of BP’s spill response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

    Look at the fallacies lined up in a row. First redefine “bad” to be “catastrophic” and then say since it isn’t … what, world ending? Then it must be OK after all.

  2. john personna says:

    BTW, I really have no respect for your title either, because “uncertainty” does not mean “exaggerated.”

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    Essentially what I’ve been saying for weeks. It was obvious from the nightly news that there was a disconnect between the hysteria of the media and what we were actually seeing on the screen where very little oil had actually come ashore (thank god). When Haley Barbour pointed this out in an attempt to protect the vacation industry down there he was pooh poohed by left and right. Now it appears likely that 40% of the oil has already evaporated, and much of the rest is being broken up by weather and eaten by bacteria which exist in large quantities in the gulf because there’s a steady leakage of oil via natural means anyway. The latest misperception we’re starting to see unravel is story from the locals who have been telling any newsman who would listen that they have lost their livelihoods, the gulf will never be the same, we’re ruined etc etc.. Now they’re all starting to scream and shout that as the oil recedes and the whole operation winds down because they will no longer be required. Of course they are shouting because an enormous and much more reliable cash cow is going away. I don’t dispute this spill was very serious and there’s still a lot of work to do in the clean up but the completely over hyped reaction was a perfect example of hysteria that grips us from time to time.

  4. john personna says:

    Why shouldn’t I just read this as the natural reaction by people not _seeing_ the oil every night on their tv anymore?

    … “not on tv, must be gone.”

    I do think natural bioremeidation was greater than expected, but that “news” isn’t exactly the same as a gas chromatograph result, let alone a shrimp toxicity study.

    I really doubt that James or Joe are ready to set their families down for plates of gulf shrimp.

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    john personna says:
    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 09:17
    Why shouldn’t I just read this as the natural reaction by people not _seeing_ the oil every night on their tv anymore?

    … “not on tv, must be gone.”

    Strawman. No one is saying it “must be gone” but when it’s estimated 40% has already evaporated it’s hard to say it’s not going at a fairly rapid rate. And I’d be quite happy to eat gulf shrimp provided it had been cleared for consumption.

  6. tom p says:

    “And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.”

    Nature coping with this spill has never been an issue, nature does not care, it’s laws are inviolable and will deal with whatever environmental disaster we throw at it according to those laws.

    The question is can we cope with the it?

    Right now, 40% of the oil has evaporated or been burned off, or siphoned off. Burning or evaportion leaves alot behind and I wonder about the toxicity of these residues. I wonder about the toxicity of all the dispersants released in the gulf. The oil eating bacteria… as they eat the oil in a completely unnatural concentration, are they going to reproduce at such a prodigous rate and consume so much oxygen that they create dead zones so massive that the annual dead zone in the Missippi Delta looks like a pimple in comparison?

    Uncertainties indeed… What is certain is that dumping millions of barrels oil in the Gulf will have consequences and probably far reaching ones at that. Just because the oil isn’t on the beaches and the well is capped doesn’t mean the worst is passed.

    Could be it is yet to come. Who knows?

  7. john personna says:

    Strawman.

    Not when it is human nature, it is not. Out of sight, out of mind, is definitely a factor.

    No one is saying it “must be gone” but when it’s estimated 40% has already evaporated it’s hard to say it’s not going at a fairly rapid rate.

    Are you familiar with the volatility of organic compounds? _If_ 40% evaporated then they had very specific characteristics, and would probably not be the part that stuck around (pun intended) in sands and marshes. I say “_if_” because we also know a big slug of the leak’s output was methane. That was gone, “evaporated” in a technical sense, as soon as it hit the surface.

    And I’d be quite happy to eat gulf shrimp provided it had been cleared for consumption.

    At the same time, those shrimp aren’t cleared for consumption, and James is saying that fishermen’s claims of lost income are “exaggerated.” Which is it?

    BTW, I went looking for toxicity results and found an amusing article. It boiled down to “we haven’t found any toxicity … of course we aren’t looking in the closed areas, because they are closed.”

    I think I’d like to know the results _in_ the closed areas before declaring exaggeration.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    People were too quick to call it a catastrophe and now perhaps too quick to call it exaggerated. Doesn’t anyone have patience to wait and see these days?

  9. Alex Knapp says:

    What a terrible article. The predictions of environmental damage in the Gulf were long-term forecasts, not short-term. So to discount them because the damage isn’t appearing in the short term is to proclaim that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  10. wr says:

    This article is essentially the same as those right-wingers screaming “It’s snowing in January, so obviously there’s no global warming.”

  11. john personna says:

    Steve Plunk encapsulates it nicely.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    john personna says:
    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 10:29
    “Are you familiar with the volatility of organic compounds?”

    No. But in my world 40% is “material.”

    “would probably not be the part that stuck around (pun intended) in sands and marshes. ”

    You obviously didn’t read the piece in this morning’s NYT times where the acreage of marshland affected is turning out to be much smaller than originally suggested.

    “At the same time, those shrimp aren’t cleared for consumption, and James is saying that fishermen’s claims of lost income are “exaggerated.” Which is it?”

    You’re mixing different issues. I just said I’d eat shrimp from the gulf if cleared for consumption, what’s this got to do with fisherman’s income in a direct sense? I do suspect there’s probably been a bit of exaggeration on income loss but that’s got nothing to do with my fondness for lemon shrimp pasta!

  13. Brummagem Joe says:
  14. john personna says:

    Joe, that was a very bad response. You accuse me of “mixing different issues” but you are doing it just as fast as you can, leaving the significant part of my answer out of your response.

    For example, when you have a mixture and you remove 40% by volatility you cannot claim linear progress. Who cares if 40% is “significant.” What matters is the composition of the original mixture and the nature of the 60% (not “significant”?) remaining.

    You do it again with “e the acreage of marshland affected.” Did I ever say I was most concerned with “acreage?” Acreage is certainly going to be a factor in the final tally of damages, but it sure isn’t something you can pull out now as a determining factor. A lot depends on the types of environments which were impacted, how severely, and how long they will remain impacted.

    Then this, “I just said I’d eat shrimp from the gulf if cleared for consumption, what’s this got to do with fisherman’s income in a direct sense?” Are you kidding me? Do fishermen removed form their ground not suffer economic impacts?

    Finally this ” I do suspect there’s probably been a bit of exaggeration on income loss but that’s got nothing to do with my fondness for lemon shrimp pasta!”

    Really? You don’t think an aggregate fear of gulf shrimp won’t have an economic impact?

  15. Muffler says:

    Keep thinking it just evaporated…. keep wishing it just went away. I’ll bet if you knew where your fish and shrimp came from you wouldn’t eat it. Just because you can’t see the oil doesn’t mean it isn’t in everything it touched. Oil breaks down to smaller particles. Additionally the chemicals added to break up the oil was to make it look better…not to make it cleaner. Never has an oil spill just disappeared… it becomes harder to see the effects visually, but it doesn’t’ just burn off.

  16. john personna says:

    BTW, the article you cite has paragraphs which support your argument … as long as you skip the paragraphs in it which support my argument.

    Hence, uncertainty, which is where I started.