Worse Than the Deepwater Horizon
Some candidates for “worst environmental catastrophe in American history”


In the next week, how many times will you hear that the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the worst environmental catastrophe in American history? This assessment was plausible when first uttered by President Obama almost a year ago, but now it’s clear that the worst never happened. The Deepwater spill has largely disappeared — dispersed, evaporated, and eaten by bacteria. Its impact on sea life appears minimal.

Yet politicians, activists, trial lawyers, and environmental journalists persist in perpetuating this myth. Why? Pinning disasters on the environmental lobby’s hobby horse du jour defines the battlespace, increases the power of the state, and feeds its hangers-on. A horrible industrial accident that killed eleven becomes a teachable moment for the news cycle, lobbying, fundraising, and litigation.

We had a similar orgy of “reform” after the Three Mile Island incident, which had exactly zero effect on the environment and killed no one, but paralyzed reactor construction for decades. Not surprisingly, congressional Democrats have looked on nuclear regulation as a model for oil regulation in the future. But how many tons of CO2 have we put into the atmosphere because we cut back on nuclear power? How many millions of barrels of oil will be spilled as production shifts to low-rent Third World states as a result of the administration’s permitorium? There are times when the environmental movement resembles a circular firing squad.

A year after Deepwater, the Fukushima reactor crisis neatly brackets this phenomenon. Radiation has, so far, killed exactly no one. But in the media, the nuclear accident has dominated the bigger tragedy: the earthquake and tsunami that claimed an estimated 14,000 lives. The anti-nuke lobby was out there spinning the event before the corpses were cold in an effort to shut down existing nuclear plants or prevent new ones from being built.

This week, the AP asked scientists to rate the health of the Gulf on a scale of 1 to 100, before and after the spill. Their answers: pre-spill, 71; post-spill, 68. Why so little difference? The spill didn’t amount to much next to other, lesser known problems. Some environmental disasters aren’t dramatic enough to make it on cable TV. Some have bigger lobbies supporting than opposing them. Rarely are these hidden disasters the fault of corporations. In the Gulf of Mexico, we more often see the hand of dysfunctional government, not the private sector.

So, let’s look at some other candidates for “worst environmental catastrophe in American history.”

Candidate No. 1: the erosive loss of Louisiana’s barrier islands and wetlands, caused primarily by decades of re-engineering the Mississippi River basin to control floods and expedite navigation. At great expense to taxpayers, channelization, as it is called, puts a lazy river on steroids, speeding up its flow. This process dumps the river’s silt out at sea rather than allowing it to collect and maintain a fertile wetland delta at the river’s mouth.

In Louisiana, as much as 25,000 acres of wetlands wash away every year, as compared to the roughly 550 acres of marsh that were oiled by the spill. In the past 50 years, more than 2,000 square miles of land have disappeared.

Wetland loss is a twofer as environmental catastrophes go. Wetlands soak up the energy of hurricanes and lessen the impact of storm surges. Had the wetlands not been destroyed by government action, Hurricane Katrina could have been less destructive.

How bad is bad? Compared with wetland loss, the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes is like “a sunburn on a cancer patient,” coastal scientist Paul Kemp has said..

Decades and hundreds of billions of dollars of bad water policy led to this the pretty pass. Many water projects represent a subsidy for businesses that depend on waterborne transportation. And of course many are earmarks, reflecting political horsetrading and the power of committee chairs and other party leaders rather than real need.