The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?

So far, predictions of ecological catastrophe on the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill seem overblown

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An extensive network of oil booms surround marshland off the coast of Louisiana on July 18, 2010

President Obama has called the BP oil spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the "catastrophe along the Gulf Coast," while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping "Disaster in the Gulf" chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an "environmental catastrophe." The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it "the leak" — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.

Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it's no leak; it's the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It's also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we've heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana's disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year.

The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn't making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to "a sunburn on a cancer patient."

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who's working for a spill-response contractor, says, "There's just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we're not seeing catastrophic impacts." Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP's spill-response funds. "There's a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it."

The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska's Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden's assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I've ever seen that were actually black. "It comes back fast, doesn't it?" van Heerden said.

Van Heerden is controversial in Louisiana, so I should mention that this isn't the first time he and Kemp have helped convince me that the conventional wisdom about a big story was wrong. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when the Army Corps of Engineers was still insisting that a gigantic surge had overwhelmed its levees, they gave me a tour that debunked the prevailing narrative, demonstrating that most of the breached flood walls in New Orleans showed no signs of overtopping. Eventually, the Corps admitted that van Heerden and Kemp were right, that the surge in New Orleans was not so gigantic and that engineering failures had indeed drowned the city. But there was still a lot of resentment down here of van Heerden and his big mouth, especially after he wrote an I-told-you-so book about Katrina. He made powerful enemies at LSU, lost his faculty job, and is now suing the university. Meanwhile, he's been trashed locally as a BP shill ever since he downplayed the spill in a video on BP's website.

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