Four months after the Deepwater Horizon spill — which President Obama called the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced” — the oil is disappearing, and fisheries are returning to normal. It turns out that this incident exposed some things that are seriously wrong in the world of oil — and I don’t mean exploding wells. There was a broad-based failure on the part of the media, the science establishment, and the federal bureaucracy. With the nation and its leaders looking for facts, we got instead a massive plume of apocalyptic mythology and threats of Armageddon. In the Gulf, this misinformation has cost jobs, lowered property values, and devastated tourism, and its effects on national policy could be deep and far-reaching.
To get an idea of the scale of misinformation involved, consider how many of the most widely reported narratives about the spill — ones that have woven their way into the national consciousness — have turned out to be dubious. Some examples:
East Coast beaches are threatened. Everyone got the wrong idea about the magnitude of the spill from the very beginning. Simply put, while terrible, it was never going to be as big as most thought it would be. The spreading of this East Coast–beach meme was a joint operation of NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the media. In June, NCAR produced a slick computer-modeled animated video that showed a gigantic part of the spill making its way around the southern tip of Florida and up the East Coast. Oil covered everything from the Gulf to the Grand Banks. “BP oil slick could hit East Coast in weeks: government scientists,” dutifully reported the New York Daily News. CBS News, MSNBC, and many other media outlets chimed in in the same vein. The video was wildly popular on YouTube.
But then the government, in the form of a more senior bureaucracy, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), disavowed the scenario.
In fact, according to Chuck Watson of Watson Technical Consulting — a Savannah, Ga., firm specializing in computer modeling of the effects of hurricanes, seismic events, geophysical hazards, and weapons of mass destruction — the simulation was bogus from the very beginning, because it ignored important conditions in the Gulf. Furthermore, says Watson, the media never took account of how diluted the oil would be once it hit the Atlantic: The bulk of the theoretically massive spill the video shows amounts to roughly a quart of oil per square mile. Watson claims flat-out that NOAA was “gold digging” for grants; there’s probably more federal research money floating around the Gulf than there is oil. “There is a feeding frenzy with people trying to get funding for their specialty,” he says.
Giant plumes of oil. By mid-May, oil was still comparatively scarce in the Gulf. Disappointed, the media began trying to figure out where it had gone. Marine researchers were drafted to provide the answer. Diluted oil was being found beneath the surface; but how diluted, no one was sure, and there was nothing vaguely resembling peer-reviewed literature.
Still, news reports implied or asserted that “enormous oil plumes” were waiting, like submerged monsters, to rise and attack unsuspecting beaches and wetlands. The New York Times summed up the media consensus on May 15: “Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.” The article quoted Samantha Joye, a marine-sciences professor at the University of Georgia, as saying that this oil was mixed with water in the consistency of “thin salad dressing.”
According to the Washington Post, James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University, reported “a plume of oil in a section of the Gulf 75 miles northwest of the source of the leak. Cowan said that his crew sent a remotely controlled submarine into the water, and found it full of oily globules, from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball.” The Post said that this showed the oil might slip past containment booms and pollute beaches and marshland.
But late in May, NOAA did a study that was far less alarming. It found weak concentrations of oil in the area surrounding the Deepwater Horizon site: 0.5 parts per million, maximum. The median was a little over 0.2 parts per million. As with the “giant” spill that threatened the East Coast, that’s barely above the threshold of detection. And by late July and early August, BP, the federal government, and some independent researchers were saying they couldn’t find any plumes at all. “We’re finding hydrocarbons around the well, but as we move away from the well, they move to almost background traces in the water column,” said Adm. Thad Allen, the administration’s point man on the spill. Some 75 percent of the oil released is gone — and that’s based on new estimates that put the spill rate at the high end of earlier projections.
As with the bogus doomsday model, industry experts say the giant-plume threat was greatly overstated by scientists and further blown out of proportion by the media. According to Arthur Berman, a respected petroleum expert at Labyrinth Consulting Services in Sugar Land, Texas, the theory flunks basic physics. “Oil is lighter than water and rises above it in all known situations on this planet. The idea of underwater plumes defies everything that we know about physical laws and has distressed me from the outset about these unscientific reports.”
It also ignores the Gulf’s well-known ability to break down oil. Berman points out that the Gulf has for millennia been a warm, rich ecological gumbo of natural oil seeps, oil-eating bacteria, and marine life that subsists on the bacteria. His research, he says, suggests that the spill represents at most four times as much oil as seeps into the Gulf naturally in a year — in other words, it is eminently digestible by the native ecosystem.
Berman and Watson are contributors to The Oil Drum, a group blog written by and for people in the energy business. The website has been debunking many of the extreme scenarios surrounding the spill. Most of its contributors are proponents of “peak oil” theories, and thus are skeptical of oil’s future and eager to explore alternatives. The oil industry has come to a sorry pass when its skeptics are its most credible defenders.
The Corexit threat. No aspect of the spill response has been more controversial than the widespread use of Corexit, a family of detergent-like compounds that break up oil, hence the name “dispersant.” Once broken up, oil evaporates, and is also easily eaten by bacteria. Dispersion turns thick, ugly slicks into widely distributed droplets, minimizing damage to beaches and sensitive wetlands. Massive application of dispersants is the reason the spill disappeared so quickly; but it’s important not to spray the dispersants directly on living things, like marshlands or coral.
Corexit has faced a variety of criticisms. Some say it is absolutely toxic, even more so when mixed with oil, and blame it for illness, including cancer, among spill workers in Alaska and elsewhere. They claim it’s been banned in Britain because it’s poisonous. They also suggest that Corexit is more dangerous and less effective than alternative dispersants, and has been used because BP has a financial interest in the firm that makes it. While this full-blown Corexit fear has been the province, for the most part, of green blogs, a few such allegations have made their way into mainstream publications like the New York Times, as well as recent congressional hearings.
The reality is that enough of anything will kill you, but that the amount of Corexit in the Gulf is highly diluted. As for the British ban on Corexit, it was based not on toxicity, but on the product’s slipperiness: Because the island nation is surrounded by a rocky, ecologically sensitive coastal environment, its version of the EPA makes sure all the small creatures that live there can cling safely to their rocks. If oil or Corexit gets on a rock, the humble limpet, the official guinea pig, loses its grip, so Corexit failed the tests. It is approved for application to spills in open water.
Even the EPA, which tries to ban basically everything but prune juice, has always approved of Corexit under tight supervision. The EPA weighed in with new findings at the beginning of August: It said that Corexit was “similar” in toxicity to other dispersants, and that there was no evil synergistic effect when Corexit was combined with oil. To the extent we need to worry about subtle, long-term environmental problems, the issue of residual oil is 100 times more important than Corexit.
Senior scientist Judith McDowell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a marine biologist who recently returned from the Gulf, says she isn’t entirely comfortable with the compound. But “given the situation in the Gulf,” she says, “given the massive amounts of oil and the human-health consequences at the well site, they had no choice.” She adds that dispersants should not be used with all spills. “It’s a trade-off when one wants to protect shoreline habitats, but you shouldn’t apply dispersants in all situations.”
All this misinformation comes at a serious cost. Even if the administration quickly rescinds its ban on offshore drilling (cost: 50,000 jobs, more than $2 billion in lost wages), as appeared likely in early August, the economic impact of the spill and the paranoia surrounding it will be huge. Potential visitors and customers are scared.
● The real-estate company CoreLogic, as quoted by Bloomberg, says property values could fall by about $3 billion over the next few years along the Gulf, and as much as $56,000 for some houses.
● A trade group, the U.S. Travel Association, said the tourism industry in Florida alone could stand to lose up to $18.6 billion over the next three years from the BP oil spill, even though the well has been capped.
● There are dozens of anecdotal reports that no one is buying Gulf seafood, even in areas unaffected by the spill. Gulf Coast shrimpers and fishermen are in a tough spot: On one hand, as more areas of the Gulf are declared safe, they presumably won’t be able to collect compensation from BP or the government and will have to get back to work; on the other, no one’s buying their catch. Given the public fear of toxins in food, this problem could last a long time.
● Even if the drilling ban ends, regulatory uncertainty will exact a huge cost from oil firms and their shareholders. Some insider reports suggest that oil assets in the Gulf are already being disposed of at fire-sale prices.
What’s especially unfortunate here is that all the misinformation connected to overreaction to the spill may have had a serious influence on President Obama and his advisers — leading, for example, to the Gulf drilling ban and an overly strict regulatory approach. This is a tough sell for conservatives, many of whom are looking for evil purposefulness, rather than delusion, in the administration’s policies. But think of it this way. We have the most liberal administration in history, and it is composed of people who lack the reflexive skepticism that conservatives apply to the mainstream media and left-wing blogs. Spend enough time following the reporting and blogging on Deepwater Horizon, and you come to realize that the administration’s behavior in the crisis likely wasn’t based on a cynical master plan; rather, the administration was overwhelmed by sheer panic about the magnitude of the potential disasters, outlined by its most loyal supporters, that it thought it faced.
– Lou Dolinar is a retired columnist and reporter for Newsday. He is currently in Mobile, Ala., working on a book about what really did happen in the Deepwater Horizon spill.