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A little context for the BP oil spill: It isn't the Apocalypse

COMMENTARY | May 05, 2010

The Gulf of Mexico spill is a calamity with enormous costs. Nevertheless, writes Ken Ringle, there are factors at work, observed in similar calamities years ago, that suggest the damage to the environment may be less than is widely feared, and reporters should be alert to them.

By Ken Ringle

In July 1979 The Washington Post dispatched me to the island of Tobago off Trinidad  to cover the first collision of fully-loaded supertankers. The two ships in question, each more than 1,000 feet long, were loaded with a total of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil – enough to supply 20 per cent of the daily consumption of the entire U.S. at that time.
I knew something about oil. I had grown up in Louisiana around wells and derricks. As a reporter I had written about refineries, ridden tankers and helicoptered to offshore rigs. I figured the oil spill off Tobago would be the environmental disaster of all time. But guess what happened to that environmental disaster?
It never happened.
The calamity was bad enough. One ship exploded and sank, 27 people died and there WAS an enormous oil spill. But it never hit any beaches, never appeared to oil any birds, and ultimately simply disappeared. Most of it evaporated; the rest was consumed by oil-eating microbes in the sea. As near as anyone can tell, there was virtually no environmental damage.
I didn’t want to believe this could be true. It took aerial flights over the spill site and interviews with a dozen or more experts before I understood and reported that seemingly impossible truth. And in that event there’s a lesson today for reporters covering the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – a lesson both in what actually happened and a bigger lesson in my reluctance to believe it.
Here are the politically incorrect truths that arm-waving anchormen and environmental activists today don’t want to face or may not be aware of: 
  1. Crude oil is a natural substance, composed of a galaxy of hydrocarbon compounds, ranging from gasoline to tar. Compared to infinitely more toxic refined oil products like Diesel fuel, it is unstable and tends to disintegrate into volatile compounds.
  2. Much of it will evaporate, given the right conditions.
  3. What won’t evaporate will be attacked by oil-eating microbes in the sea water.
  4. The degree of evaporation and the success of the microbe attack will depend upon several factors:
    1. The chemistry of the crude oil in question.
    2. The temperature of the air and of the water.
    3. The dynamic action of sun, wind and waves at the spill site. 
In the case of the oil spill off Tobago, I learned, the cargo was light Arabian crude – among the lightest and most volatile of crude oils extracted from the earth. It is light years in chemistry from the tarry oils of the Pacific Coast or Alaska’s North Slope. The spill occurred in July, in sunny tropical waters in the 70s, with 17- 19-knot trade winds in the 80s. As one expert told me at the time, had the same spill occurred with Alaskan crude in the Arctic, it might be remain there for a century. Off Tobago it disappeared in days.
The BP spill is unquestionably a calamity. There will be enormous costs, including costs to fish and wildlife interests. There will be some wetlands damage. But many of the same factors that ameliorated the Tobago spill are at work off the mouth of the Mississippi. Strong southeast winds have been spreading the spill and encouraging its evaporation. Air temperatures in the 80s water temperatures in the 70s and plenty of sun have encouraged the attack of oil-eating microbes.
All that has reached shore at this writing has been a thin sheen, comparable to what one sees in parking lot puddles after a rain. The winds have now shifted to move the slick toward Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. But as it moves, it thins further, and all those meteorological dynamics favoring breakdown are at work. We can only hope that they continue. The chemistry of oil from each well drilled in the Gulf of Mexico is a little different, but basically we can say the oil from the BP spill ranks somewhere in viscosity between the tarry crudes of Alaska and the western US and the light Arabian crude spilled at Tobago.
What will happen when it hits the Gulf Coast wetlands? Most fish and birds will avoid the area. Obviously larval oysters, crabs and other estuarine creatures will suffer. But oil has been drilled from, pumped across and spilled on Gulf Coast wetlands for more than half a century. The wetlands eventually recover, because nature bats last.
The month before the oil spill in Tobago, the Mexican oil company Pemex had its Ixtoc I rig blow out in the Bay of Campeche, 600 miles south of the Texas coast. That resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history. The drilling platform burned and collapsed in an accident intriguingly similar to that of the BP rig off Louisiana. The well leaked from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day for eight months before it was capped. Yet resulting coastal damage was minimal. 

None of this makes easy reading for reporters and editors today because it complicates the story of the BP oil spill. They, like their readers and viewers, are already conditioned to think all oil is the same, all spill environments are similar, and oil itself is an evil and unnatural element, equally toxic to every man and beast. And you can’t get dramatic film of oil evaporating. But any journalist worth his salt will try to educate the public he works for to the complexity of this very, very serious environmental challenge. That’s the only path toward the understanding at the heart of the journalist‘s creed. And toward genuinly informed political remedies in the aftermath.

Oil-eating microbes
Posted by Anonymous
06/11/2010, 06:13 PM

This provides good alternative insight; the first such I've read on the issue since the explosion.

I wonder, can these microbes be introduced en masse to this region and would that help to increase the cleanup efforts?

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