GULF OIL SPILL | Voice of Reason

Peter Holloway* | LLOYD’S LIST

WHERE in all the hyperbole surrounding the Deepwater Horizon is the voice of reason?

‘Gushing’!, ‘Spewing’!, ‘Ecological disaster’! ‘Devastation’! How is it that any time oil is released into the sea emotive words are dragged out of the dictionary by journalists and second rate politicians? How is it that rational people are bamboozled by these exaggerations? How is it the press cannot report honestly on the ample evidence that oil spills are not long term in impact and never cause lasting environmental damage?

An oil slick, if it is thick enough, has the power to smother seabirds and the intertidal zones in the short term, but once the source is stopped, the oil disperses by chemical and physical weathering, and diminishes by bio-degradation.

Why is every oil spill an environmental disaster and the act of a criminal, instead of an industrial accident? Bhopal was an environmental disaster (20,000 dead). Chernobyl was an environmental disaster (More than 140,000 affected, untold numbers dead). Three Mile Island nearly was. Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, although unpleasant, are not. Nature can and does recover from oil within a short space of time in the marine environment and there is much supporting evidence for this worldwide, and to convince the public otherwise is at best cheap sensationalism, at worst a form of dishonesty.

It does not help the forces of reason either when grotesque comparisons are made by heretofore respectable champions of the environment such as Erin Brockovich (for whom I once held a huge respect) who has been wheeled in to whip up more hysteria by suggesting there are similarities between an accidental release of oil into a significant volume of sea water and a long term and deliberate poisoning of groundwater by a utility company. This caused real human suffering by persistent deception even when the consequences of human ingestion of a truly toxic and deadly chemical was apparent.

Ms Brockovich’s role, however, is not on the scene to clean up beaches, but “to connect ‘victims’ to lawyers”. So, as expected, it’s actually all about money.

Last time I looked, oil, a hydrocarbon, which also happens to be the basis of most life-forms on this planet, is not in itself a deadly chemical at the exposure rates probable. The residents of Hinkley, if the film was based on fact, were lied to, and they died because of it. No one is likely to die from exposure to the Deepwater Horizon oil leak except the unfortunate riggers who seem to have already become the forgotten victims, lost in a sea of hysterical reporting in what may happen to seabirds, coral reefs (last time I looked these were mostly underwater) and fish, also underwater.

What the doomsayers and ‘experts’ do not report is that it is unlikely that such levels of oil will be stopped by any booms in the open sea, that the spill is not a criminal act, but a result of an accident. It is almost certain that more birds are destroyed by vehicles than will be destroyed by this spill, but there is no oil major to blame for that.

Why the complete lack of rational thinking and the instant appearance of doomsday ‘experts’ prophesying environmental catastrophe, which to date has never occurred at any oil spill? For the gullible, photographs in the press have already shown a desiccated seabird which had died of natural causes long before the oil spill and a very healthy looking cod on a sea shore without a trace of oil on it. Again, where is the voice of reason? Where is the evidence that oil, which floats on the sea surface, kills these fish?Certainly oil can enter the water column below the surface of the sea as it disperses, but I am not aware of fish mortality from this.

It may be that the scale of the leak was underestimated but I would venture to say this is more a result of the insatiable demand for cheap oil that has driven exploration into these new and extreme working environments, and there has been complete transparency on what efforts are being made to kill the well, and how difficult the task is.

Where is the honest expert to explain that oil booms are an expensive waste of time and money in combating the spread of oil in even the most benign conditions? Why are the aircraft burning good aviation fuel (increasing global warming) by spraying dispersant on oil that has clearly emulsified, which is also a complete waste of time and money?

This is not to minimise the immediate concerns that the Macondo oil well is uncontrolled (temporarily), and that there is a ban on fishing (temporarily) because of the exaggerated perception that fish will be contaminated, and that there may be beaches and mangroves that will be oiled (temporarily), and those who earn a living from holidaymakers in the region will have cancellations in 2010. So far the kind of smothering layers of oil that I have experienced in past spills has not materialised to any great extent, and if a higher concentration of oil than sheen or globs does reach the shore it will affect some sea birds, and this is regrettable.

Activities to control and stop the spill are openly discussed, and the difficulties of controlling the well are equally apparent, but somehow the politicians find it more satisfying to rant that not enough is being done, without explaining how much more could be done, and that someone is to blame. It is a sad indictment of the morals of politicians that common sense and a balanced view will not be allowed to prevail, and that some understanding and an appreciation of the vast scale of the problem, and how much is actually being done, cannot be voiced. With three of the highest specification oil rigs in the world recovering oil and drilling relief wells, and an armada of support vessels it is undoubtedly the largest spill response in the history of marine oil spills.

The well will be controlled and the spill will disperse, as they always do. Credit should be given to the huge efforts to control the well. It should be remembered that some people have lost their lives in this incident. That is the already forgotten tragedy, that an oiled fish has more coverage than human life, buried under a xenophobic outpouring of hysteria.

* Peter Holloway is a maritime surveyor with extensive industry experience working on oil spills and maritime casualties

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