The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?
President Obama has called the BP oil spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the "catastrophe along the Gulf Coast," while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping "Disaster in the Gulf" chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an "environmental catastrophe." The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it "the leak" — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.
Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon 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 number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we've heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of 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, assessment teams have found only 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 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past 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." Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from 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 oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually 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 Alaska's Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And 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've ever seen that were actually black. "It comes back fast, doesn't it?" van Heerden said.
Van Heerden is controversial in Louisiana, so I should mention that this isn't the first time he and Kemp have helped convince me that the conventional wisdom about a big story was wrong. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when the Army Corps of Engineers was still insisting that a gigantic surge had overwhelmed its levees, they gave me a tour that debunked the prevailing narrative, demonstrating that most of the breached flood walls in New Orleans showed no signs of overtopping. Eventually, the Corps admitted that van Heerden and Kemp were right, that the surge in New Orleans was not so gigantic and that engineering failures had indeed drowned the city. But there was still a lot of resentment down here of van Heerden and his big mouth, especially after he wrote an I-told-you-so book about Katrina. He made powerful enemies at LSU, lost his faculty job, and is now suing the university. Meanwhile, he's been trashed locally as a BP shill ever since he downplayed the spill in a video on BP's website.But van Heerden and Kemp were right about Katrina, and when it comes to BP, they're sticking to the evidence gathered by the spill-response teams — which all include a state and federal representative as well as a BP contractor. So far, the teams have collected nearly 3,000 dead birds, but fewer than half of them were visibly oiled; some may have died from eating oil-contaminated food, but others may have simply died naturally at a time when the Gulf happened to be crawling with carcass seekers. In any case, the Valdez may have killed as many as 435,000 birds. The teams have found 492 dead sea turtles, which is unfortunate, but only 17 were visibly oiled; otherwise, they have found only one other dead reptile in the entire Gulf. "We can't speak to the long-term impacts, but Ivor is just saying what all of us are seeing," says Amy Holman, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director for Alaska who is working on van Heerden's assessment team in the Gulf.
The shoreline teams have documented more than 600 miles of oiled beaches and marshes, but the beaches are fairly easy to clean, and the beleaguered marshes don't seem to be suffering much additional damage. Oil has blackened the fringes of the marshes, but most of it stayed within a few feet of the edge; waves from a recent tropical storm did carry more oil a few meters inland, but very little of it infiltrated the wetland soils that determine the health of the marsh.
LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana's coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. "We don't want to deny that there's some damage, but nothing like the damage we've seen for years," he says.
It's true that oil spills can create long-term problems; in Alaska, for example, shorebirds that ate Exxon-tainted mussels have had diminished reproductive success, and herring fisheries have yet to fully recover. The potential long-term damage that underwater oil plumes and an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants that BP has spread in the area could have on the region's deep-water ecosystems and food chains might not be known for years. Some scientists worry that the swarms of oil-eating bacteria will lower dissolved oxygen levels; there has been early evidence of modest reductions, though nothing approaching the dead zone that was already proliferating in the Gulf because of agricultural runoff in the Mississippi River basin. "People always fear the worst in a spill, and this one was especially scary because we didn't know when it would stop," says Michel, an environmental consultant who has worked spills for NOAA for more than 30 years. "But the public always overestimates the danger — and this time, those of us in the spill business did too."
It's easy to overstate the policy implications of this optimistic news. BP still needs to clean up its mess; federal regulation of deep-water drilling still needs to be strengthened; we still need to use fewer fossil fuels that warm the planet; we still don't need to use more corn ethanol (which is actually dirtier than gasoline). The push to exploit the spill to gain a comprehensive energy and climate bill in Congress has already stalled anyway — even though the planet still needs one.
The good news does suggest the folly of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's $350 million plan to build sand berms and rock jetties to protect marshes and barrier islands from oil. Some of the berms are already washing into the Gulf, and scientists agree that oil is the least of the problems facing Louisiana's coast, which had already lost more than 2,000 sq. mi. of wetlands before the spill. "Imagine how much real restoration we could do with all that money," van Heerden says.
Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have obvious incentives to accentuate the negative in the Gulf. So do the media, because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines; those oil-soaked pelicans you saw on TV (and the cover of TIME) were a lot more compelling than the healthy ones I saw roosting on a protective boom in Bay Jimmy. Even Limbaugh, when he wasn't downplaying the spill, outrageously hyped it as "Obama's Katrina." But honest scientists don't do that, even when they work for Audubon.
"There are a lot of alarmists in the bird world," Kemp says. "People see oiled pelicans and they go crazy. But this has been a disaster for people, not biota."source: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2007202,00.html