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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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Time magazine on May 17 featured its own cover story on the “catastrophe” in the Gulf. Time offered readers horrifying images of “an uncontrolled gusher with economic, political and social consequences as far as the eye can see. The slick—a morphing mass of at least 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq km) as of May 3, and changing every day,” the story continued, “threatens to kill wildlife and wreck the fishing industry along nearly 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline.” Once again, unnamed “scientists worry that ocean currents could carry the oil around the tip of Florida to the beaches of the East Coast,” potentially devastating the Keys and the Everglades.

The media actually relied less on marine biologists and oil spill experts for their information and more on environmental groups. The Gulf “disaster” offered multiple potential benefits to these groups, including the possibility of desired policy changes. The executive director of the Sierra Club declared, “This will kill any plan to expand offshore drilling for the next decade.” Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation saw the spill as a powerful message that “we need to address the underlying issue, and that’s our dependence on oil” and other fossil fuels, with their greenhouse emissions and other environmental harms.

America’s political leadership also contributed to the mass anxiety. President Obama came to office with close personal knowledge of matters such as inner city schools but less of the environment. Ill-served by his advisers, the president on June 15 declared the spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” He compared it to “an earthquake or a hurricane” such as San Francisco or Katrina but said it could be even worse because “it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

Could the Gulf region simply have been extra-ordinarily lucky? No doubt there was an element of luck. The marine organisms consumed the oil faster than was generally expected. Even so, a scientifically accurate and honest assessment on May 1 would have read something like this:

The oil spill sparked by the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20 is occurring in circumstances never experienced before, particularly the great depth of the water. It is impossible to predict what ecological damage there will be. While unlikely to be catastrophic, the damage could range from significant to minimal. The experience of most oil spills has been that the long-term damage proves less than initially feared. Public impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, oil is a natural substance, including in the ocean, and nature has its ways of dealing with it. The natural conditions in the Gulf of Mexico are considerably more favorable than in Alaska, but even there the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill were rapidly disappearing within five years and today are largely gone.

Instead, America treated the Gulf spill almost as a religious catharsis. The message was that we have sinned against nature, and God is justly punishing us. Whatever the facts, such messages can resonate powerfully. America is unusually religious for a modern nation, and some of its religions, such as environmentalism, are secular. As always, there are many people—the Elmer Gantrys of our time—who are happy to feed the public’s fears.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland, a senior fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and the author, most recently, of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.

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