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The Crisis that Wasn’t: Where’s All the Oil?

The BP spill had media, politicians, and environmentalists once again pitching a worst-case scenario rather than objective analysis.

by
Jeff Perren

Bio

July 31, 2010 - 12:00 am

After two years of near-daily crises, most of them either created or worsened by the federal government, we’ve entered a period of relative calm. It won’t last. Pelosi and crew will make sure of that. But during this lull it’s a good time to consider the crisis that didn’t occur: the wrecking of the Gulf from the BP oil spill.

Several news reports are showing that the expected devastation of the waters and shoreline of the Gulf simply hasn’t happened. Early (and historical) evidence suggests that it never will. The oil slicks expected to last for months have failed to cooperate with the government’s desire to use the crisis to pass cap and tax. (Congress is moving ahead with a smaller bill for now, but that’s another article.)

Despite Obama’s dour cautioning that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, efforts to cap the well were finally a great success. Progress toward completing the relief well continues with only minor interruptions from severe seasonal storms.

Naturally, the New York Times isn’t about to surrender their Chicken Little membership card without a struggle. Give them credit where it’s due, though: for once they were honest enough to report that the problem is now less than anticipated:

Reporters flying over the area Sunday spotted only a few patches of sheen and an occasional streak of thicker oil, and radar images taken since then suggest that these few remaining patches are quickly breaking down in the warm surface waters of the Gulf.

Evaporation, storms, and natural dispersion effects (and human cleanup efforts) are doing what they’ve done in the past: reducing the concentration of the oil, sometimes to microscopic size, where it’s consumed as food by microbes. So, once again, the sky hasn’t fallen.

Yet CBS, the New York Times, and other major media outlets are doing what they can to keep us terrified. (They never let a crisis go to waste, either.) They’re using the well-practiced environmentalist tactic: warning of possible impending doom by relying on uncertainty:

The effect on sea life of the large amounts of oil that dissolved below the surface is still a mystery. Two preliminary government reports on that issue have found concentrations of toxic compounds in the deep sea to be low, but the reports left many questions, especially regarding an apparent decline in oxygen levels in the water.

So, despite the absence of knowledge of harmful effects (“a mystery”) and two official reports stating low concentrations of toxins, we should still be anxious. Why? Because, well, because environmentalism says so. Never mind facts, we’ve got a theory!

That theory, to use an overgenerous term given its woeful lack of empirical support, implies that human activities always lead to grievous harm greater than the Earth (or we) can handle. The potential harm is so substantial (and so likely), advocates claim, that only the mighty power of legislation has any hope of mitigating it.

The federal government has powers the seas don’t possess, apparently.

Never mind history, too — there have been huge oil spills in the past, after all. In 1979, the Ixtoc I blowout gushed 140 million gallons into the water during the ten months taken to contain the problem. Yet the long-term environmental impact is so low, few even remembered the event until the BP Deepwater Horizon incident. (Some native crab and turtle populations were severely impacted for several years.) For comparison, the BP oil spill injected about 23 million gallons into the Gulf in three months, based on Department of Energy data.

As with any large-scale oil spill, there are local effects, some of them serious. Some citizens of the Gulf states have suffered real harm and should be fairly compensated. BP should be held accountable to the amount of the actual damage and their degree of real culpability. Setting aside his unwholesome love for being an unaccountable petty dictator, Ken Feinberg is sure to see to that, at minimum.

Also, there will be long, careful legal proceedings to establish what liability BP and others incurred. (There are already early reports that some government bodies caused or worsened the crisis. Those responsible will almost certainly escape without substantial punishment, but never mind that for now.) BP has already laid out billions, and no doubt they’ll lay out many billions more before it’s all over.

That’s fine. The evidence so far suggests their safety procedures were lax, even negligent perhaps. Fine. Nail them, if and to the extent they deserve it. But let’s keep a sense of perspective. A serious problem? Yes. But one that, like so many, private parties responded to with vigor and ingenuity, hampered as usual by the worse-than-useless efforts of people focused on finding a neck to support a boot.

Maybe we should wish for a new crisis to distract them. Here’s a candidate: Obama could concentrate on replacing the jobs vaporized by his ill-considered moratorium on deepwater drilling. On the other hand, given his track record in that arena … we don’t need another mess to clean up.

Jeff Perren is a freelance writer. Educated in philosophy and physics, the lure of writing soon outweighed science. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and blogs at Shaving Leviathan.
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