Politics & Policy

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.

Efforts to unwind the effects of these projects in Louisiana have been ongoing since 1990, and will cost billions if they’re completed at all. Funding may be one of the potentially happy outcomes of a Deepwater spill settlement. Otherwise, progress here is defined by including a little vig for the environmental lobby along with traditional water-project pork: For example, the 2007 Water Resources Development Act approved water projects totaling over $20 billion, with $750 million in earmarks and a few billion for environmental initiatives in Louisiana and the Everglades. A bipartisan coalition joyfully overrode President Bush’s veto of the legislation.


Remember the fuss about “giant plumes of undersea oil the size of Manhattan” during the Deepwater panic? The fear was that the microbial community that disposed of the oil would, as it decayed, consume all the dissolved oxygen, killing all the sea life in its path as it drifted through the Gulf. 

That never happened, but the scientists were right to be worried. There is just such a zone, but it is not caused by oil. And it is not the size of Manhattan. It’s as big as New Jersey, and located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Its size varies with the seasons and water flow. Within it, nothing lives.

The Dead Zone is caused by fertilizer runoff and animal waste from feedlots in the Midwest. This feeds algal blooms that suck all the oxygen from the water as the algae decompose. Indirectly, it is at least in part a product of agricultural subsidies, including those related to ethanol mandates. Channelization is a secondary contributor — wetlands serve as a buffer against agricultural by-products in the water.

Ethanol was originally supported by Al Gore and his fellow greens, though its costs and polluting side effects have caused many, oops, to reverse their position. Too late. Subsidies and mandates have taken on a life of their own, renewed in the lame-duck Congress and expanded by the Obama administration. In part because corn-growing Iowa hosts the first primary vote, support for ethanol is a virtual requirement for any presidential candidate — witness Newt Gingrich’s bender on C2H5OH.

Compare Congress’s ethanol jones with proposals for regulating the oil industry to prevent another Deepwater. When it comes to Deepwater, there’s no reform too small nor too expensive.


A more traditional “greatest environmental disaster” contender in the Gulf is the 1979 Ixtoc oil-well blowout. The gallonage was about half of the government’s estimate for Deepwater, but BP claims that estimate is far too high, a contention that will eventually be litigated and resolved. Further, at Ixtoc, the type of oil was more toxic and persistent.

Ixtoc wasn’t the fault of a private oil company, so it was dropped down the memory hole until the Deepwater spill. Pemex, the notoriously corrupt, patronage-ridden, and incompetent Mexican government oil monopoly, was responsible.

The blowout was analogous to that of the Deepwater, but occurred in much shallower water (160 feet deep) and closer to shore — theoretically much easier to stop. Nonetheless, it took the government-run oil company nine months to drill relief wells and finally kill the gusher. As compared with the greenskeeper-like cleanup that BP executed post-Deepwater, the Mexican government barely made a stab at remediation.

It is not idle rhetoric to speculate that the Deepwater cleanup might have gone more like Ixtoc’s if the Energy Department, rather than BP, had been in charge of drilling for oil. According to the president’s spill commission, government scientists, led by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, tried to block the “static kill” that finished off the well months ahead of the most optimistic schedule. Let’s also remember that Chu and company were looking at using nuclear weapons to seal the well.

The Gulf is but one example of an overall trend: The bigger the government, the less free the country, and the more likely environmental catastrophe. China is the currently the world’s biggest polluter, whether measured by CO2 or particulates from coal-fired generating plants. Environmentally induced cancer is its biggest killer. In the former Soviet Union, the Chernobyl reactor explosion was the result of a combination of poor design — including the absence of a containment vessel — and inept operation unknown in the West. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. In East Germany, the now-gone State Planning Commission took part in a bizzare scheme that encouraged pollution to raise money from anti-pollution fines. One lunatic dictator, Saddam Hussein, accounts for the bulk of the oil spilled throughout history: During the first Persian Gulf War, 660 million barrels were spilled on land, burned, or dumped in the water, as compared with 5 million barrels from Deepwater.

You’ll read a lot this week about the environmental consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the grand scheme of things, those consequences, and the perpetrators, are a sideshow.

— Lou Dolinar is a retired reporter for Newsday who was born on the Right side of the tracks in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. 


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