How big is the gulf oil disaster? It's too early to tell.
Michael Grunwald writes in Time that government officials and the media have exaggerated the scale of the gulf oil spill. It’s bad, he writes, but not anywhere near the greatest catastrophe the Gulf of Mexico has faced. He has a point -- lots of the oil has apparently degraded without making landfall, and nature is surprisingly resilient. Plenty of the rhetoric about the spill was overblown. But be careful not to overreact in the opposite direction. There’s still a lot we don’t know.
Grunwald compares the BP spill to the Exxon Valdez, pointing out that the latter resulted in a lot more dead wildlife. Bacteria also took a lot more time to break down oil in cold Alaskan waters, whereas in the warm gulf, they seem to be feasting on the crude.
But I think a more apt analogy is to the 1979 blowout of the Ixtoc 1 rig, also in the Gulf of Mexico. See, for example, the New York Times’s reporting on how the residual effects of that decades-old event continue to addle nearby coastal ecosystems, killing off oyster populations and stunting the growth of mangroves. Grunwald talks about how he saw sprouting in Louisiana’s oiled mangrove swamps. Perhaps the state’s flora will avoid such harm. Or perhaps lingering toxicity will have effects similar to those after Ixtoc.
Possibly much more significant, though, is the depth at which the BP spill occurred. It’s hard to quantify how much oil remains dispersed in deeper, colder waters, let alone the nature of its effects on the gulf’s ecosystem writ large -- not simply on coastal areas, on which Grunwald focuses. Oil can linger in strange, unexpected places, doing damage that isn’t quick, obvious or dramatic but is nevertheless worrying.
The long-term damage other oil spills caused took years to develop -- let alone to understand. It’s too early to become comfortable with this one.
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