Will the Oil Spill Really Be Less Damaging Than Expected?

Let's hope

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Reports allege that oil on the surface of the Gulf is disappearing at an extraordinary rate. Thad Allen, in charge of the government side of the cleanup, has repeatedly said that crews are, in fact, having difficulty finding oil to clean up. That sounds great, though there are caveats to the good news.

But is it true? Could what has been billed as the greatest environmental disaster in years really be tidying itself up this quickly? Reactions range from cautiously optimistic to skeptical and, in the case of at least one reporter, derisive. To some commentators, however, it does seem possible that the spill's impact might wind up being less damaging than expected.

  • Why Impact May Have Been Exaggerated Time's Michael Grunwald ("who's on the speed-dial of all enviro flacks," remarks a surprised Mike Allen) actually takes the view that the spill's damage might not be so bad after all: "so far, less than 1% of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez ... so far, wildlife response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of any mammals ... so far, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean." Scientists he talks with see four reasons for this:
First, the Deepwater Horizon oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is comparatively light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Prince William Sound, is balmy at more than 85 degrees, which also helps bacteria break down oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. Finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient.
  • 'Doesn't Seem So Improbable,' muses Michael Tomasky, who points out, like Mike Allen, that Michael Grunwald would hardly be one to carry water for BP (he's "a fine environmental reporter who knows the region well"). Tomasky wonders what "the political fallout" might be if Grunwald and others prove to be right. "It probably helps Obama a little to the extent that if the damage were massive it would hurt him. But in the longer term ... the fact that the spill didn't live up to the hype will be used by the free marketers as basis for arguing for more deregulation."
  • 'Finite Lifespan at the Surface' Doesn't Mean Oil's Gone, points out David Dayen at liberal blogging hub Firedoglake. Rather than celebrate, he's inclined to recall the possibility that "the oil could have settled on the seafloor or in plumes beneath the surface, something BP has denied for months."
  • Surface Oil Alive and Well Mother Jones's Mac McClelland fumes over an AFP writer's report that "the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up." She texts two contacts who can see the oil washed up on beaches. Says McClelland: "If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let's hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, 'What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it,' can locate some more with the staff and craft of the United States Coast Guard at his disposal." She also reminds readers of reports that digging merely "a finger under the surface" on the beaches "turns up crude," the cleanup efforts being described by numerous workers as "strictly cosmetic."
  • Overall, a Mixed Picture David Fahrenthold and Leslie Tamura split the difference in their coverage for The Washington Post. "Up to 4 million barrels ... the vast majority of the spill," is more or less missing. But it has to be somewhere, whether "cleaned up by nature ... taken on a second life as contaminants in the air, or in landfills around the Gulf Coast," or still, in fact, in the water, "probably mixed with chemical dispersants ... in underwater clouds." The 'best-case scenario," of course, is that most of the oil "has been eaten by the gulf's natural stock of oil-munching microbes." These microbes "could cause their own problems, depleting the oxygen that gulf creatures need in the water," but so far that hasn't happened. The picture, though, isn't entirely rosy:
[I]n some places, good news from the water has meant bad news in the air. A NOAA report on the air quality downwind of the blowout site--where as much as 10,000 barrels of oil were burned off every day for more than a month--found high levels of hydrocarbons in the air, as much as 10 times what would be detected in the air over Los Angeles.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.