The Magazine

Oil Spill Hysteria

The Gulf of Mexico suffered remarkably little damage. Why were so many so willing to believe otherwise?

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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The search for damage to the Gulf, it seems, is a bit like the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. An armada of ships was assembled to respond to the leak caused by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well, and a virtual war was declared on it (and on the well’s owner, BP). It is—or should be—embarrassing that the predicted disaster failed to materialize.

In the end, 4.9 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf, almost 20 times the Exxon Valdez spill and the largest by far in U.S. history. But there are reasons the ecological consequences were so small in comparison with those of the Exxon Valdez. Start with the fact that the Gulf spill occurred in 5,000 feet of water, while most spills come from tankers at the surface. It took time for the oil to get to the surface, giving the oil-eating “bugs” of the Gulf opportunity to do their work.

A second important factor was that the spill occurred 50 miles from the coast. This left more time for responders to apply chemical dispersants and for wave action and other natural forces to decompose large amounts of oil. What oil did reach the beaches often took the form of tar balls that were less environmentally harmful than actual slicks. Cleanup workers could simply pick them up. 

By contrast, the Exxon Valdez spill immediately spread over the surface of the ocean, where many birds and other creatures came into contact with it. Prince William Sound, where the spill began, is an enclosed body of water, and the spilled oil—some of it in the most toxic forms—quickly reached the shore. In addition, the sound has no significant natural oil seepage and so lacks the associated oil-eating organisms. The water is much colder and less conducive to such natural activity. The mammal populations in Prince William Sound and the other affected areas were larger, too.

All of this, to be sure, was well known to students of oil spills. Indeed, the greatest significance of the Gulf spill lies not in its ecological effects, but rather in the outbreak of social hysteria that it occasioned. The episode should be studied as such. As terrorists know all too well, mass hysteria can do more damage than the precipitating event. 

Eruptions of social hysteria have occurred throughout history. Among the better known instances are events in Christian Europe associated with fear of the devil. Over several centuries, many thousands of people deemed to be witches were killed. We now have secular equivalents to the devil that evoke their own mass anxieties and destructive overreactions. 

In the case of the Gulf spill, the widely distributed pictures of oil gushing into the sea had this effect for many people. Environmentalists are not alone in thinking that human beings may have overstepped our bounds in seeking to transform the natural world for our own selfish purposes. Many fear that we are “playing God” in the world, wantonly destroying plant and animal life, and that God will punish us.

Oil and other fossil sources of energy, moreover, have greatly enhanced humans’ power to transform Creation. It might thus seem appropriate that God’s punishment would take the form of a devastating oil spill. As Ted Turner told CNN in May, the Gulf spill “could be” God’s work. “He’s sending us a message” to curb our destruction of the earth.

Fortunately, episodes of social hysteria eventually run their course, and cooler heads prevail. But a great deal of damage can be done in the meantime. It is important to review why it took so long in the Gulf for reason to prevail.

The largest blame lies with the media. Hysterical overreaction, frankly, sells newspapers and magazines, which is one reason the media have a long history of hyping Communist spying, cancer epidemics, terrorist attacks, and now oil spills. In the case of the Gulf, it was the national media, despite their greater investigative resources, that led the charge. On May 6, using language it employed throughout the spring and early summer, the Washington Post updated its readers on the “catastrophic oil spill unfolding in the Gulf.”

Nine days later the Post reported, “The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not yet caused coastal damage on the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster. But scientists say it is becoming something different and potentially much more troubling: the first massive U.S. oil spill whose effects so far are largely hidden under water.” The headline “The ‘invisible monster’ ” evoked a virtual horror movie of terrors lurking in the deep. Throughout the spring and early summer, the Post’s reporters routinely attributed doomsday predictions for the Gulf to unnamed “scientists.” The effect was to suggest that a scientific consensus existed so strong that it was not necessary even to identify any particular scientific authority.

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