The Great Misinformation Spill of 2010
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.
One interesting paragraph notes something about which I hadn’t heard much, previously:
It also ignores the Gulf’s well-known ability to break down oil. [Labyrinth Consulting Services petroleum expert Arthur] 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.
As it happens, an article in the morning paper takes up the topic of oil-eating microbes:
Government scientists studying the BP disaster are reporting the best possible outcome: Microbes are consuming the oil in the Gulf without depleting the oxygen in the water and creating “dead zones” where fish cannot survive.
Outside scientists said this so far vindicates the difficult and much-debated decision by BP and the government to use massive amounts of chemical dispersants deep underwater to break up the oil before it reached the surface.
The debate that will likely arise in the space between these two articles is whether the toxic oil dispersants were actually needed in the tremendous amount that they were deployed. I’m certainly in no position to offer an opinion on that, so I’ll content myself with an expression of relief that the near panic of the spring and summer appears to have been far overblown.