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

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But van Heerden and Kemp were right about Katrina, and when it comes to BP, they're sticking to the evidence gathered by the spill-response teams — which all include a state and federal representative as well as a BP contractor. So far, the teams have collected nearly 3,000 dead birds, but fewer than half of them were visibly oiled; some may have died from eating oil-contaminated food, but others may have simply died naturally at a time when the Gulf happened to be crawling with carcass seekers. In any case, the Valdez may have killed as many as 435,000 birds. The teams have found 492 dead sea turtles, which is unfortunate, but only 17 were visibly oiled; otherwise, they have found only one other dead reptile in the entire Gulf. "We can't speak to the long-term impacts, but Ivor is just saying what all of us are seeing," says Amy Holman, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director for Alaska who is working on van Heerden's assessment team in the Gulf.

The shoreline teams have documented more than 600 miles of oiled beaches and marshes, but the beaches are fairly easy to clean, and the beleaguered marshes don't seem to be suffering much additional damage. Oil has blackened the fringes of the marshes, but most of it stayed within a few feet of the edge; waves from a recent tropical storm did carry more oil a few meters inland, but very little of it infiltrated the wetland soils that determine the health of the marsh.

LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana's coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. "We don't want to deny that there's some damage, but nothing like the damage we've seen for years," he says.

It's true that oil spills can create long-term problems; in Alaska, for example, shorebirds that ate Exxon-tainted mussels have had diminished reproductive success, and herring fisheries have yet to fully recover. The potential long-term damage that underwater oil plumes and an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants that BP has spread in the area could have on the region's deep-water ecosystems and food chains might not be known for years. Some scientists worry that the swarms of oil-eating bacteria will lower dissolved oxygen levels; there has been early evidence of modest reductions, though nothing approaching the dead zone that was already proliferating in the Gulf because of agricultural runoff in the Mississippi River basin. "People always fear the worst in a spill, and this one was especially scary because we didn't know when it would stop," says Michel, an environmental consultant who has worked spills for NOAA for more than 30 years. "But the public always overestimates the danger — and this time, those of us in the spill business did too."

It's easy to overstate the policy implications of this optimistic news. BP still needs to clean up its mess; federal regulation of deep-water drilling still needs to be strengthened; we still need to use fewer fossil fuels that warm the planet; we still don't need to use more corn ethanol (which is actually dirtier than gasoline). The push to exploit the spill to gain a comprehensive energy and climate bill in Congress has already stalled anyway — even though the planet still needs one.

The good news does suggest the folly of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's $350 million plan to build sand berms and rock jetties to protect marshes and barrier islands from oil. Some of the berms are already washing into the Gulf, and scientists agree that oil is the least of the problems facing Louisiana's coast, which had already lost more than 2,000 sq. mi. of wetlands before the spill. "Imagine how much real restoration we could do with all that money," van Heerden says.

Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have obvious incentives to accentuate the negative in the Gulf. So do the media, because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines; those oil-soaked pelicans you saw on TV (and the cover of TIME) were a lot more compelling than the healthy ones I saw roosting on a protective boom in Bay Jimmy. Even Limbaugh, when he wasn't downplaying the spill, outrageously hyped it as "Obama's Katrina." But honest scientists don't do that, even when they work for Audubon.

"There are a lot of alarmists in the bird world," Kemp says. "People see oiled pelicans and they go crazy. But this has been a disaster for people, not biota."

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