Spilling Oil, Not Blood
A look at crises in the Gulf and the Mideast.


Conrad Black

This seems to be a time for extreme, equal-opportunity, no-fault alarm. Just two months ago, the New York Times seemed to be offering Manhattan tours to Patagonians, Tasmanians, or Bessarabians who had had a sexual experience with a Roman Catholic clergyman sometime in the last 75 years, even if only like that of Tennessee Williams’s spinster in The Night of the Iguana. (A man had touched her thigh, decades before.) Headlines were screaming that the Roman Catholic Church was on the brink of collapse. The abuse problem is a terrible and often disgusting and tragic one. But the pope is addressing it very effectively, as most of his 260-plus predecessors have addressed most serious problems that have arisen in that organization, and church attendance and recruitment are steady to growing. Belief is in the Faith and the ark of the Faith, not in all its very human personnel.

The vicissitudes of the Church were driven from the media by exhaustion of new developments, providentially (as it were) assisted by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. And it certainly is a disaster. But it is not such a disaster that it will not be substantially repaired quite quickly. Estimates vary, but it may be that it spouts 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, and will have done so from April 20 to August 20, a conservative guess as to when the relief wells will be operating. That is four months, 122 days, or 7.32 million barrels. BP is siphoning up as many as 25,000 barrels a day, so let us say 15,000 per day for the last two months before August 20, or 930,000 barrels, leaving 6.39 million barrels to contend with (ignoring significant quantities being burned off and corralled and removed by the repurposed shrimp and fishing boats in BP’s imaginative “vessels of opportunity” program).

If there are not heavy storms in the Gulf by August 20, a massively funded, staffed, and tested team will launch a counter-offensive that should be able to eliminate, by one or another method, at least 25,000 barrels a day, and probably much more. Heavy storms would break up the slick, making it easier for the natural forces of degradability to function and moving it inshore where collection is easier, though shore and wildlife damage is more severe.

Virtually all the oil that can be isolated will be gone on the first anniversary of the initial break, though, of course, extensive clean-up challenges will remain. But they will be addressed with extreme determination and ingenuity. Fishermen will temporarily have higher incomes working in the clean-up than in their normal activities. Full drilling will be resumed and safety standards will be dramatically improved. None of this means that it hasn’t been, isn’t, a disaster, and I am not facetious in writing that no slicked pelican or gull should be left behind. But it will be overcome, as disasters and crises are.

The amount of oil spilled will have been substantially less than that released during any year of World War II, when submarines and surface vessels on all sides gleefully sank any uncongenial ships, and especially great bumbling tankers loaded to the gunwales with oil. Yet the environment recovered, without the concentration and technology the Gulf spill is receiving.