Should the Oil Spill Be Left to Spill?

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Credit: TEDxOilSpill Expedition

God knows this blog—and just about everyone else with a keyboard and Internet access—has been hammering BP and the government for failing to do enough to respond to the Gulf oil spill. But what if the best thing to do when oil leaks is…nothing? That was the tentative conclusion of several British experts at a briefing in London on Monday, who raised the possibility that the best plan could be to try to corral the oil when it’s out to sea but otherwise leave it to disperse and evaporate naturally. They suggested that the all-hands-on-deck response of the White House, Coast Guard and BP—tends of thousands of response workers, thousands of ships, burning oil out to sea and dosing the spill with over 1.5 million gallons of chemical dispersants—might ultimately have more to do with politics than the environment, according to Reuters:

“One of the problems with this spill is that it has gone from the environmental arena into the economic and political arena, so if you ask how bad it is, that depends on which perspective you’re coming from,” said Martin Preston, an expert in marine pollution, earth and ocean sciences from Britain’s Liverpool University.

“Economically, clearly the impact has been very large, but environmentally the jury is still out. One of the tensions between environment and politics is that politicians cannot be seen to be doing nothing, even though doing nothing is sometimes the best option.”

Simon Boxall of Britain’s National Oceanography Center noted that scientists have gone back and looked at the Exxon Valdez—until the Gulf disaster, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. They found that the areas that were generally left alone had fared better that those that had been cleaned up with chemicals or mechanically. Others noted that all the dispersants than had been added to the oil—which breaks up the spill into smaller particles, ostensibly to allow them to disperse faster—may actually make it harder for bacteria to do their natural work of breaking down the petroleum.
I’ve heard differently. At the TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington yesterday, the microbiologist Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville—who participated in the Exxon Valdez response—made the opposite point. “Adding dispersants is a good thing [for bacteria],” he told the audience. “If you dilute the oil, that’s good.” But at the same time dispersants come with their own toxic legacy—officials have basically admitted that they see dispersants as the lesser of two evils—but they may be impacting the health of sea life in the deep water, and cleanup workers on the beach. And of course no one has ever tried to use chemical dispersants on the scale that BP is employing in the Gulf—the entire ecosystem has become an uncontrolled science experiment.
It’s certain, though, that the mechanical cleanup work—the thousands of subcontractors combing the Gulf coast for oil—could be doing more harm than good, especially in southeastern Louisiana’s sensitive marshlands. There any attempt to actually get the oil out seems doomed to fail—like pulling petroleum out of a sponge—and having workers tramping through wetlands grasses will damage an ecosystem that has been under tremendous stress for decades due to coastal erosion. But it sure does look good to have guys in white suits raking at the oil.
It’s impossible to tell just how much of the response is political theater, and how much might actually make a difference. I doubt BP or the Coast Guard fully know either. Thanks to a determined policy of not investing in oil spill response—which has led Kevin Costner to somehow being hailed as a scientific hero—we don’t really have many good ideas to try. (Maybe some hidden geniuses will come out of the woodwork and win the new $10 million XPrize on oil response, but I’m skeptical.) As it happened today BP and the Coast Guard announced that rough seas from Tropical Storm Alex had forced a halt to skimming operations on the water. Here’s the bright side: maybe it won’t even matter.