On April 24, 2010, I wrote this about the aftermath of the explosion that took down the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico:
The good news is that this spill looks as though it will be largely contained. The Coast Guard reported Friday morning, April 23, that a remote-controlled camera found that oil was not leaking from the deep-water well drilled by the rig. It’s not clear why no oil appears to be leaking or whether the well will begin bleeding again in the future — crews were unable to close it before the rig sank — but for now, the environmental damage appears to have been blunted. “Right now it looks like we dodged a bullet,” says Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University.
As it turned out, that bullet hit us square in the forehead, as the Deepwater Horizon blowout would spew some 5 million barrels of oil, becoming the biggest spill in U.S. history. In the chaos of the first few days after the spill, no one—not BP and the not the Coast Guard—really knew how bad the accident was, and whether the all-important blowout preventer had managed to activate and cut the flow from the well. (It had not.) But that didn’t stop those in authority from assuring us at the time that all was well, no major oil spill. Nothing to see here.
More from TIME: The Gulf Disaster
So perhaps it’s no surprise that environmentalists and journalists alike have reacted with skepticism and concern to the news that an underwater pipeline leak from a Shell platform in the North Sea has been leaking oil for days. The accident began last week at the Gannet Alpha platform 112 mi (180 km) east of the Scottish city of Aberdeen, and while Shell said that the well was shut by August 10 and that the leak was “under control,” it appears some oil is still escaping, albeit at a declining volume. Altogether Shell—after being criticized for its secretive response to the accident—now says that about 1,300 barrels of oil have spilled into the North Sea, according to Glen Cayley, the company’s technical director of exploration and production activities in Europe:
This is a significant spill in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea. We care about the environment and we regret that the spill happened. We have taken it very seriously and responded promptly to it.
More from TIME: The Big Spill
Compared to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, of course, 1,300 barrels of oil isn’t much. But it is already the biggest spill in the North Sea in more than a decade, according to Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). While DECC officials believe that the oil will likely disperse in the rough North Sea weather before it can make landfall, it’s still a worrying mistake, as Stuart Housden, a Scottish environmentalist, told the Guardian:
We know oil of any amount, if in the wrong place, at the wrong time, can have a devastating impact on marine life. Currently thousands of young auks – razorbills, puffins and guillemots – are flightless and dispersing widely in the North Sea during late summer. So they could be at serious risk if contaminated by this spill.
Video from TIME: Oil Spill Anxiety on the Bayou
The Deepwater Horizon spill offers two lessons here. One, the environment may be more resilient to oil than we imagine—that appears to be the case with the Gulf of Mexico. And two, always be suspicious of government and industry officials downplaying the extent of an oil spill in its early stages. (In case that’s not enough, the recent Exxon pipeline spill in Montana should convince you.) We can hope that the North Sea leak really is as minimal as the industry is saying—and we can hope that trouble in the North Sea doesn’t translate to the Arctic, where Shell recently received conditional approval to begin offshore drilling. But I won’t be surprised if we end up being wrong again.
More from Ecocentric: Why Oil Exploration in the Arctic Is Another Sign of the Age of Extreme Energy