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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The day after the midterm elections in November, panelists at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy discussed the various factors that had contributed to the Democrats’ losses—most surprisingly, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One speaker with excellent Democratic connections in Washington noted that top White House staff were consumed by the spill and its political fallout for much of the spring of 2010. As staffers now lamented privately, this had diverted attention from other pressing issues—above all, the sputtering economy.

Oil Spill Hysteria

Getty images / Mario Tama

The political fortunes of the Democratic party were not the only collateral damage from the spill. Gulf coast tourism plummeted, even in areas untouched by oil. Seafood restaurants in New York and Chicago proudly advertised that they did not serve Gulf fish. And many oyster beds were devastated when they were flushed with fresh water from the Mississippi River as a “preventive” measure. Most recently, on December 1, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancelled previous plans for much expanded offshore oil and gas drilling, killing thousands of jobs and forgoing an opportunity to reduce the nation’s enormous foreign energy bill.

Oddly enough, however, the ecosystem of the Gulf itself turns out to have suffered remarkably little damage from the continuous gushing of oil into the water from April 20 till July 15, when the leaking well was capped. One group of scientists rated the health of the Gulf’s ecology at 71 on a scale of 100 before the spill and 65 in October. By mid-August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was having trouble finding spilled oil. This squared with the finding of researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California that the half-life of much of the leaking oil was about three days. At that rate, more than 90 percent would have disappeared in 12 days. 

NOAA explained one reason for this in a report in August: “It is well known that bacteria that break down the dispersed and weathered surface oil are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico in large part because of the warm water, the favorable nutrient and oxygen levels, and the fact that oil regularly enters the Gulf of Mexico through natural seeps.” In other words, the organisms that normally live off the Gulf’s large natural seepage of oil into the water multiplied extremely rapidly and went on a feeding frenzy. Another 25 percent of the spilled oil—the lightest and most toxic part—simply evaporated at the surface or dissolved quickly.

Damage to wildlife, too, was relatively sparse. As of November 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 2,263 oil-soiled bird remains had been collected in the Gulf, far fewer than the 225,000 birds killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. Despite fears for turtles, only 18 dead oil-soiled turtles had been found. No other reptile deaths were recorded. While more than 1,000 sea otters alone had died in the Alaska spill, only 4 oil-soiled mammals (including dolphins) had been found dead in the Gulf region. These are very small numbers relative to the base populations. Similarly, government agencies were unable to find any evidence of dead fish. Fish can simply swim away from trouble. Nor was evidence found of contamination of live fish. In one government test, 2,768 chemical analyses uncovered no signs of contamination.

In the latest irony, marine biologists this fall have actually been seeing surprising increases in some fish populations. It seems that the closure of large areas of the Gulf to fishing amounted to an unplanned experiment in fisheries management. According to Sean Powers, a University of South Alabama marine biologist, “It’s just been amazing how many more sharks we are seeing this year. I didn’t believe it at first.” He attributed the change to the “incredible reduction in fishing pressure,” and added, “What’s interesting to me [is that] we are seeing it across the whole range, from the shrimp and small croaker all the way up to the large sharks.” 

Some oil from the spill did reach beaches, and it did so in a seemingly random pattern. The Texas coast was little affected, and as of late July, only 6 of 25 Alabama beaches being monitored had had oil spill-related advisories. Even where oil did reach beaches, human cleanup and natural processes typically removed most of it quickly. By early November, a federal spokesman found a continuing presence of “heavy oil” on 30 miles of the total 580 miles of Gulf beaches where oil had come ashore. 

After all the predictions of ecological disaster in the spring, government officials have been searching hard for more evidence of harm. In early November, a Penn State marine biologist announced that he had finally found a “smoking gun”: dead and dying coral reefs in 4,500 feet of water not far from the spill site. Coral in shallower waters and farther from the site was unaffected.

Recent Blog Posts