September 8, 2010

The Great Misinformation Spill of 2010

Justin Katz

Lou Dolinar takes certain folks to task for the coverage and official outlook on the BP oil spill (try here if you don't subscribe to National Review):

Four months after the Deepwater Horizon spill — which President Obama called the "worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" — the oil is disappearing, and fisheries are returning to normal. It turns out that this incident exposed some things that are seriously wrong in the world of oil — and I don't mean exploding wells. There was a broad-based failure on the part of the media, the science establishment, and the federal bureaucracy. With the nation and its leaders looking for facts, we got instead a massive plume of apocalyptic mythology and threats of Armageddon. In the Gulf, this misinformation has cost jobs, lowered property values, and devastated tourism, and its effects on national policy could be deep and far-reaching.

One interesting paragraph notes something about which I hadn't heard much, previously:

It also ignores the Gulf's well-known ability to break down oil. [Labyrinth Consulting Services petroleum expert Arthur] Berman points out that the Gulf has for millennia been a warm, rich ecological gumbo of natural oil seeps, oil-eating bacteria, and marine life that subsists on the bacteria. His research, he says, suggests that the spill represents at most four times as much oil as seeps into the Gulf naturally in a year — in other words, it is eminently digestible by the native ecosystem.

As it happens, an article in the morning paper takes up the topic of oil-eating microbes:

Government scientists studying the BP disaster are reporting the best possible outcome: Microbes are consuming the oil in the Gulf without depleting the oxygen in the water and creating "dead zones" where fish cannot survive.

Outside scientists said this so far vindicates the difficult and much-debated decision by BP and the government to use massive amounts of chemical dispersants deep underwater to break up the oil before it reached the surface.

The debate that will likely arise in the space between these two articles is whether the toxic oil dispersants were actually needed in the tremendous amount that they were deployed. I'm certainly in no position to offer an opinion on that, so I'll content myself with an expression of relief that the near panic of the spring and summer appears to have been far overblown.

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Did I ever share my favorite four words with this blog?

They are 'I Told You So', and in this case, I get to use them. See my comment to a RIFuture article on the spill, back in the beginning of May:

(it's the last comment)

The fearmongering, hyperbole, and lies in the media about this whole thing were hard to listen to. Even today (with oil gone, fishing waters open, and catches testing clean), the radio and news are interviewing fishermen claiming that they'll never work again. There are scientists saying that 'the worst is yet to come because the oil is still out there' even though it's obviously been diluted to benign concentrations. The '20 mile long, six mile wide plumes' that we heard about were in concentrations that required advanced equipment just to detect. You could swim through that 'plume' and not even know it; you could literally -drink- the water in it and not get sick. People talked about benzene in the Corexit like it was some sort of horrible permanent substance that would surely kill everyone. In reality, the amount of benzene exposure was similar to leaving a Sharpie marker uncapped in your house when the windows were open (read: nothing).

This oil spill should give everyone a good view on how twisted and imaginative politically and financially motivated scientists and talking heads can get. I believe in anthropomorphic climate change, but I don't think it's going to be as bad as the wingnuts have everyone convinced. If the proportion of predictions to effects are the same between this spill and global warming, all we have to worry about is a few less feet of shoreline and slightly different weather.

Posted by: mangeek at September 8, 2010 12:19 PM

Apparently I'm not even constructing sentences properly. I'm a few cups of coffee short of normal today. :-)

Posted by: mangeek at September 8, 2010 12:23 PM

yeah maybe the oil just up and disaperared or maybe we will see the effects on the seafood and ocean life a few years or decades down the road.

Posted by: triplerichard at September 8, 2010 2:22 PM

One of the rarely mentioned aspects of the Exxon Valdez spill is the use of microbes.

The government only permitted the use of microbes in one "bay" area. Within 4 days, that "bay" was spotless. Since then the government has forbidden the use of microbes (restaurants can use them to clear oil fouled drains, etc). It may be that they feared mutation of the microbes.

Anyway, nothing new here, only newly revealed.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 8, 2010 5:45 PM

Before we conclude that the oil is dissipating and disappearing (largely thanks to the microbes), other independent studies have disputed that assumption. Much of the oil may still be in the water, available to impose real harm for years. Let's be careful here.

Posted by: Bill at September 9, 2010 10:27 PM

So much for that industry provided talking point...

Scientists Find Thick Layer Of Oil On Seafloor

Scientists on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico are finding a substantial layer of oily sediment stretching for dozens of miles in all directions. Their discovery suggests that a lot of oil from the Deepwater Horizon didn't simply evaporate or dissipate into the water — it has settled to the seafloor.

The Research Vessel Oceanus sailed on Aug. 21 on a mission to figure out what happened to the more than 4 million barrels of oil that gushed into the water. Onboard, Samantha Joye, a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia, says she suddenly has a pretty good idea about where a lot of it ended up. It's showing up in samples of the seafloor, between the well site and the coast...

"It's starting to sound like a tremendous amount of oil. And we haven't even sampled close to the wellhead yet," she says.

You polluter and industry apologists need to find a new line of disinformation.

Posted by: Russ at September 14, 2010 4:07 PM

Uh oh, take note, industry apologists...

FLATOW: Yeah, let me to go the phones, Darren(ph) in College Station, Texas. Hi, Darren.

DARREN (Caller): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DARREN: I'm an adjunct professor here at A&M, and we were also in the Gulf, but got thrown out. We were testing a theory that the chemical composition of the dispersant they were using was causing the oil to sink. And we'd been there for approximately three days, and federal agents flat told us to get out. And it wasn't Fish and Wildlife officers. These were Homeland Security officers, and we were told that it was in the interest of national security.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NELSON: I mean, I could see restricting access so that 500 people shouldn't be able to ride their dune buggies along the beach, but reputable scientists should have access.

FLATOW: Darren, did take your samples away or anything - take anything away from you?

DARREN: Oh, yeah, they inspected the boat. They, of course, checked everyone's identification, and they took all the samples that we had. And they also took some notes that we had. The theory that we were operating upon was information that had been given to us by someone who worked in the plant that made that dispersant. And they took everything.


DARREN: (unintelligible)...

Prof. NELSON: Ira, it's really kind of an insane world that we've entered into in terms of the barring of reputable scientists from a public site where they can contribute considerably to the knowledge that we have.

FLATOW: Dr. D'Elia, do you know of other cases like Darren's?

Dr. D'ELIA: Yes, I've heard of other cases anecdotally...

Prof. NELSON: It's also disturbing that I've seen the inhibitions on science research have also made it easier for spokespeople from both BP and, indeed, from the federal government to claim facts about the oil spill which are not factually demonstrable and, indeed, may be very much in doubt.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NELSON: You know, such as the, you know, 75 or 85 percent of it's gone, and they don't bother to look what's settled to the bottom of the seafloor, which is, after all, what happened a lot of the oil after the Exxon Valdez disaster. And so it wouldn't take a genius to figure out the same thing might have happened here.

Posted by: Russ at September 15, 2010 1:01 PM
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