Is the Gulf Oil Spill Really That Big of a Deal?
This is a big deal. Photo via CBC
I mean, come on -- it's not like it's the biggest oil spill ever or anything. It's not even the second biggest! And right now, it hasn't even caused as much devastation as the Exxon Valdez spill yet. So why are we even covering this thing again?Well, I've found a new pet peeve -- drastic, borderline-misleading reporting that understates the magnitude of a hands-down environmental disaster. I've taken issue with John Broder's work before (when he helped perpetrate the popular conservative myth that Al Gore hypes global warming to cash in on green investments, in what should be considered the weirdest get-rich-quick scheme in history, if it were real). And in a bit of news analysis for the New York Times, he downplays the severity of what is likely to be the biggest environmental catastrophe in the US in decades. It's not as though this is particularly egregious, just baffling -- it's a trend that Climate Progress has noted; various outlets misreporting the severity of the Gulf oil event.
President Obama has called the spill "a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster." And some scientists have suggested that the oil might hitch a ride on the loop current in the gulf, bringing havoc to the Atlantic Coast.He goes on, somewhat bizarrely, to repeat the standard boilerplate that it's not nearly as bad as the worst accidents in history, so maybe people are overreacting. Column space is dedicated not to probing the actual impacts this veritable volcano of oil could have on wildlife, the economy around the Gulf, and so on -- had he done that, he may have found that in many regards, this disaster is unprecedented. The marshlands, the ones that provide the coast with its first line of defense against storms, are threatened by the spill have never been so fragile, so vulnerable before. Bluefin Tuna has never been so endangered. The fish populations never so overfished. We've never had the capacity to prevent such leaks from happening with good tech before (this was a new rig!).
Yet the Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history. And its ultimate impact will depend on a long list of interlinked variables, including the weather, ocean currents, the properties of the oil involved and the success or failure of the frantic efforts to stanch the flow and remediate its effects. As one expert put it, this is the first inning of a nine-inning game. No one knows the final score.
We may not know the final score yet, but there is unquestionably going to be serious devastation to ecosystems -- and just because the game isn't over, doesn't mean we should be concerned about the toll.
And while this story may not boast the arc of pristine "untouched" wilderness getting threatened by oil that the Valdez did, it's still absolutely, undoubtedly going to be devastating in certain ways regardless of whether the leak is plugged tomorrow, or the slick never reaches land (both of which are near impossibilities). Marine mammals populations will be damaged, plankton will die off in droves, causing fish, crabs, and shrimp to suffer, oyster reefs will suffer, birds will perish, and so on. Some of these effects will have an impact on wildlife -- and the people whose livelihoods depend on it -- for generations to come.
So when you see these kind of stories, that dismiss the magnitude of this disaster, keep this in mind: this oil spill is a really, really big deal. There's no excuse for defending an event, caused in part by negligence, that wreaks this kind of havoc on ecosystems on the grounds that it's not up to scale.