Belfast Telegraph

Was Deepwater blown out of all proportion?

Gaffe-prone BP boss Tony Hayward described the Deepwater oil spill as 'a drop in the ocean'. His timing could have been better, but he was right all the same, argues Dr Simon Boxall

The Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico is a bad oil spill - as are all such spills. Thirteen people lost their lives; 11 in the original explosion and two in the spill aftermath, and that is catastrophic for the families involved.

It is likely, in the incident investigation, that this accident will be shown to have been avoidable, and the result of a series of human errors as well as mechanical failures.

These are the facts, but how much hype has there been on top of this?

It took a week before the world's media really focused on what happened in the Gulf, and even the US administration were slow on the uptake.

The first indication I noted was not 'clean-up teams are being rushed out to the region', but 'emergency lawyers are being flown in'. This set the scene for what was to follow.

It became a race for the league-tables of oil spills - the biggest in recent years, the biggest in the US, the US's worst environmental catastrophe, and on to the latest, 'the world's biggest accidental oil spill'.

Not only are these statements incorrect, they miss the key points of how we measure the impact of such an event.

A tonne of oil landing in the mangroves causes far more damage - and is harder to rectify - than 100 tons on a beach or 10,000 in the open ocean.

They also belittle truly major catastrophies - such as Bhopal and Chernobyl.

Oil spills do have a smothering effect, especially when they occur close to shore, but offshore and in deep water the effect is much reduced.

Oil is a natural product, coming as it does from rotting and compressed vegetation, and breaks down naturally with time in the environment.

As much oil seeps into the oceans each year from natural fissures in the sea bed as is spilt accidentally by humans, and the microbes of the oceans have adapted to deal with this.

The waters of the Gulf are warm, which accelerates oil decay, and within two weeks of the incident, there was an army of more than 30,000 people to deal with any oil that hit the coast - which they have done with incredible efficiency.

At the time, many scientists agreed that the situation was bad, but not catastrophic. The prognosis for the region, once the gushing oil had been stemmed, was generally considered to be good.

However, this was not a story that the lawyers, politicians, or parts of the media wanted to hear.

They were after the big event, the money, as well as the political gain.

Tony Hayward was a well-intentioned geologist-turned-chief executive who still had a bit too much of the scientist in him to deal with an emotional press and American public.

His statement that this was "a drop in the ocean" was unfortunate in its timing, but it was true.

If one were to scale the Gulf of Mexico down to an Olympic swimming pool, then the spill (taking the generally-agreed final volume) would represent less than 1 gram of oil in that pool. That's about a drop.

That doesn't mean that we need never worry about a spill again - if that drop lands on your fishing region, or beach, then it is a big drop - but in terms of the health of the overall ocean, it is not significant.

So, what will the coming months bring for the region, assuming that the static and bottom-kill procedures are indeed a success?

The environment will recover - already the media are asking "where has all the oil gone?" with desperate film crews chasing each isolated report of new landfall.

Much has been picked up, evaporated, or been broken down by microbes. Small pockets will persist and will take some years to rectify. Some of these are areas which were on the edge environmentally well before the spill took place; they have been pushed over the edge by the spill.

Ironically, their best chance of recovery was a large organisation coming along and spending vast sums on their rejuvenation.

Most (close to 99%) will be back to normal in months. To date, the animal death-toll is significantly less than that from the Exxon Valdez.

The economy of the region will also recover, with fishing, oil exploration, and extraction going back to business as usual.

Tourism might take longer - not because of the oil, but because of a perception set by the some of the more extreme media.

I heard from a colleague working in the region only yesterday, tha t the beaches of west Florida were golden sand and clean of oil - cleaner than normal, in fact - and totally uncluttered by tourists.

The biggest spill in the US? Exactly 100 years earlier, in Lake View, California.

It lasted a year, and was estimated at about 7.5 million barrels.

But, 100 years on, we are none the wiser.

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