Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A year after Deepwater Horizon, no environmental disaster 

A couple of days ago we noted that predictions of economic disaster following the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico turned out not to be true. Now comes a review of the long-term environmental impact in Time Magazine. There are the usual qualifications about what we do not know yet, but again the theme is that the hysterical forecasts from activists, politicians, regulators, and the media did not come true:

Yet nearly a year after the spill began, it seems clear that the worst-case scenario never came true. It's not that the oil spill had no lasting effects - far from it - but the ecological doomsday many predicted clearly hasn't taken place. There is recovery where once there was only fear. "A lot of questions remain, but where we are now is ahead of where people thought we'd be," Safina says. "Most people expected it would be much worse."

As we approach the anniversary of the spill, Safina's judgment is becoming the accepted wisdom: it could have been worse. That isn't to minimize what did happen in the Gulf of Mexico. Roughly 4.9 million barrels of oil blew out of BP's broken well and bled into the water, with a portion of that crude making landfall along the coastline. Add in the unknown effect of 1.84 million gallons (7 million L) of chemical dispersants, much of which were applied directly to the well deep below the surface of the ocean - something that had never been done before. Even the cleanup might have had an impact on the environment, thanks to the burning of oil on the surface of the Gulf, and the tens of thousands of workers who trampled along the sensitive wetlands of Louisiana, corralling crude wherever they could. Scientists caution that a single year isn't long enough to draw any final conclusions about an environmental insult so huge.

Yet the damage does seem so far to have been less than feared. Take the oil itself: scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated last August that much of the oil had remained in the Gulf, where it had dispersed or dissolved. Many environmentalists attacked the report for underplaying the threat of large underwater oil plumes still active in the Gulf, yet later independent scientific studies indeed found that oil had largely disappeared from the water. Turns out we can thank bacteria. Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Texas A&M University traveled to the site of the blown well and found that microbes had digested much of the oil and methane that remained in the water. By autumn, the levels were back to normal. "It's very surprising it happened so fast," John Kessler, an oceanographer with Texas A&M, told me earlier this year. "It looks like natural systems can handle an event like this somewhat on their own."

Read the whole thing, and bear it in mind the next time somebody suggest shutting down oil production because of a spill. If you enjoy modern life -- and I most definitely do -- the occasional mess is part of the price.


By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Tue Apr 19, 12:54:00 PM:

The government was remiss in stopping offshore drilling. The oil industry has been drilling in the Gulf for over a half century, and over the years has developed procedures for safe drilling. BP blatantly ignored a number of safe procedures for drilling. The problem wasn't offshore drilling. The problem was BP.

BP had earned an industry wide reputation for ignoring safety protocol. It was no accident that it was a BP refinery in Texas City that blew up. I worked with someone who had retired from BP. He and the BP engineer had submitted numerous recommendations for repairs and maintenance, which their superiors ignored. When BP offered him a promotion, he decided it was time to retire. A company which refused to do required repairs and maintenance would be setting him up for a fall, he reasoned.  

By Blogger sykes.1, at Tue Apr 19, 01:10:00 PM:

Rush Limbaugh had it right from the git-go.  

By Anonymous sirius, at Tue Apr 19, 01:35:00 PM:

"large underwater oil plumes still active in the Gulf"

I never understood this idea. My perception has always been that oil is lighter than water, and thus floats. Could somebody please explain how and where I've got it wrong?  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Tue Apr 19, 01:56:00 PM:

"large underwater oil plumes still active in the Gulf"

Fairly simple. There is a lot of oil under the Gulf of Mexico. Not all of it stays locked up in rock layers for thousands of years, some of these oil pools have natural leaks (called seeps). Regardless of Man's activity, these leaks have been happening for as long as there has been oil out there.

Environmentalists would have you believe that A) All oil that leaks from the ocean floor winds up on pristine beaches and B) it all comes from oil wells and C) it is all because of the nasty oil companies. All of which is completely wrong, but it lets them fundraise. Oil is Food to many species of microscopic critter in the Gulf, despite being poison to many others, and much of the dispersing oil in both natural seeps and the Deepwater accident got eaten, or evaporated as it slowly rose from more than a mile underwater and drifted towards shore. (much to the dismay of Environmental nutcases across the country)

I think the appropriate counter-step to the Enviros is to declare some tiny lifeform in the Gulf that eats oil to be an endangered species, and sue to block the drilling ban on the basis of the Endangered Species Act.  

By Anonymous Old Fan, at Tue Apr 19, 02:52:00 PM:

If a Republican were President today, and handled this mess as badly as the Democratic Partisans, we would still see endless coverage of how damaging this SPILL was for all.

The issue is clearly a manner of Partisan coverage. If there is an opportunity to exploit for Partisan gain, much of the MSM like TIME will play it to the hilt.

But Obama is President, handled the mess very poorly, so they promote a 'no big deal' game.

We are watching the same with Libya today. Suddenly dropping bombs is no big deal. The fiasco in Libya is being ignored. Just as the success in Iraq was suddenly ignored when Obama entered the WH.

All things are now slanted in this way. Sadly, it seems to be working on the fine conservative side as well. Fashionable candidates are given a pass, while others deemed out of fashion are pounded.

This weekend was a symbol of the absurdity, as many on the right side of history hyped Mrs. Palin's return in WI. Predictably Mrs. Palin was showing up, trying to associate herself with the real "DOERS" like Gov. Walker - a serious Leader trying to make a difference in real terms. Again the tiresome hypocrisy was missed for the sake of fashion - much like the way TIME plays the game for Obama above. The reality is, Mrs. Palin abandoned her oath - responsibility to sell Books, Reality TV, etc., while for two long years the likes of Boehner, Cantor, Ryan, etc., were busy trying to stop the Democratic Partisan folly. Yet, during this speech, Mrs. Palin exhibited more lack of judgment in trying to placate the fashion (similar to the O'Donnell folly). Mrs. Palin tried to exploit the fashion, with cheap shots at those same Republicans who actually stood united on the job opposing Obama while she sold her Celebrity on the sidelines. She employed predictable nonsense, like the term "capitulating". The irony was vivid, even if many in the fashionable conservative arena missed it. The likes of Boehner, Ryan, Cantor, etc., who have been fighting in the trenches, deserve far better then this ugly cheap shot - to aid Mrs. Palin's personal ambition.

But this is how it is, folks bend all to promote their own agenda or bias. It is human nature, but this era has taken the nonsense to a new level. If anyone outside of fashionable acceptance had embraced the foolish Maverick Platform, one of the most "capitulating" offering to the Democratic Partisan insanity via the GOP to date, they would be rebuked for it. Just as, if anyone other than a Democrat Partisan drops bombs, wages war, wire taps, botches oil spills, lies about transparency - executive orders - lobbyists - taxation - signing statements, etc., would be burned at the stake.  

By Anonymous sirius, at Tue Apr 19, 02:55:00 PM:

Georgefelis, thanks for the flesh-out. I agree with what you've said, but my question goes to the perception (perhaps I'm perceiving wrongly) that these alleged 'plumes' are a result of the spill (as described in the story) and that they continue to 'float' about beneath the surface, doing untold and unrealized damage where they remain undetected.

It seems a specious argument to me. Always has, and even more so given what we apparently know today.  

By Anonymous sirius, at Tue Apr 19, 03:48:00 PM:

"Just as the success in Iraq was suddenly ignored when Obama entered the WH."

Except for the fact that Biden tried to credit himself and Obama for it, which got him generally laughed at. But on the whole you're correct. Iraq has more or less disappeared from the headlines. Given the general level of former reportage and analysis, that's probably all for the best. One can only hope our future historians do better.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Tue Apr 19, 04:48:00 PM:

Old Fan couldn't be more wrong re: Palin. Get used to saying "Madame President." I'll wait for a more-on-point lede to expand.

Back to the lede. I believe I saw that the Deepwater spill equates to about 3X one year's worth of natural seeps in the Gulf. It would have been far worse had Deepwater been located close to shore, ironically. While enough oil got spilled to fill Yankee Stadium, Deepwater was not even a drop in the bucket of the mile-deep Gulf of Mexico. Recall that the 1979 Ixtoc spill was about the same size, much closer to shore, and the environment came back quickly, so this was all foreseeable. Neighboring Texans tried to sue Pemex over Ixtoc, but were told to pound oily sand, as state-owned Pemex claimed sovereign immunity.

Obama used Deepwater as an excuse to impede (kill?) domestic drilling. But he's a fan of drilling off Brazil. Go figure.  

By Anonymous Rob in Mass, at Tue Apr 19, 07:02:00 PM:

Just for fun, I tried some math to get a handle on the scope of the Deepwater Horizon spill. There are too many zeros in the numbers to wrap ones head around it. So, take the volume of the Gulf of Mexico (342,543,511 cubic miles) and shrink it down to the size of the Superdome in New Orleans (3.5 million cubic meters). Then take the estimated volume of the spill (200,000,000 gallons) and reduce it proportionately. What do you get? One liter. So imagine pouring a liter bottle of oil into a Superdome filled with water. How devastating would that be? Why have I never seen that math in the media?

PS lots of unit conversions in there but feel free to do the math yourself.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Tue Apr 19, 08:16:00 PM:

One liter per Superdome, love it.

Is there anything considered poisonous in drinking water at that level of concentration? Just asking.

Rob and I implicitly assume a broad dispersal -- not a concentrated spill near shore -- but doesn't that mean we should be FOR deepwater drilling over the close-in kind?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 20, 05:22:00 PM:

Ahhh the 'out of site out of mind, what you can't see can't hurt you' environmental clean-up. Love it. Regardless of your misguided views you'll still be eventually snacking on the crapped pumped into the Gulf whether you believe it's there or not.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Apr 20, 07:12:00 PM:

"out of site out of mind"
"the crapped pumped into the Gulf"

Sight. Crap.

Yeah, we should just take your word for it. You clearly know what you're about.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Wed Apr 20, 07:28:00 PM:

Kudos to Boludo for the most insightful thing I've heard re: Deepwater ... that BP was asking for trouble and so deserves blame. The corollary is that the rest of the industry is getting unfair blame. One wonders whether there's an Orwellian connection to BP's rebranding themselves as "Beyond Petroleum" with the pretty green logo.

Anon 5:22 doesn't want to see the point: Not all environmental disasters are equivalent. Some small spills of bad toxins can be "pound for pound" far worse than Deepwater, even on the multiplying scales we've been playing with. Fukushima comes to mind.


I've had the Facebook Obama town hall on in background for giggles. They now have Valerie Jarrett hosting a View-like all-women's shindig on why girls don't do good in math -- no role models -- and why they're hindered in getting VC-money. The Really Hot Chick in the bunch doesn't want to acknowledge why Kleiner Perkins backed her over others. Kinda like Hollywood starlets who later complain that there are no good roles for women over 30.

I can't wait for the next panel on "How We Can All Do Start-ups", hosted by Austan Goolsbee, a life-long academic.

I'm going to the Dark Side ...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 20, 11:16:00 PM:

"If you enjoy modern life -- and I most definitely do -- the occasional mess is part of the price"

I do wish industry, and the oil industry in particular (an industry that has done considerably more to improve mankind's lot than any environmental organization), would put more effort into driving this point home. We don't pollute the environment for spite; we pollute the environment because we derive enormous net benefit from doing so.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Thu Apr 21, 12:05:00 AM:

Gee. What a surprise. Maybe we should count to ten before panicking next time.


By Anonymous bobby, at Thu Apr 21, 02:42:00 AM:

'you'll still be eventually snacking on the crapped pumped into the Gulf whether you believe it's there or not'

Oil comes from under the ocean. There are plenty of natural leaks. We have been 'snacking' on it forever.

Who taught you this oogabooga story that modern products are Aliens from the planet Zargon?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Apr 21, 07:05:00 AM:

My dad always said "The solution to pollution is dilution."

Clearly Rob in Mass has shown us that was the case here.  

By Anonymous Bird of Paradise, at Mon Apr 25, 02:50:00 AM:

I read that BP gave donations to THE NATURE CONSERVANCY  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed Apr 27, 11:48:00 PM:

Wait. National Geographic isn't a calm, neutral reporter of environmental events? My world is in tatters.  

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