Lessons from the Horizon blowout: more hype than harm

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Source: The Hill

Only two weeks after BP began capping the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout, people have begun to ask, "Where's the oil?"   The fact that skimmer ships sent out to clean the water of oil are unable to find oil to clean is leading the mainstream media to question whether  environmentalists tried to exploit  this unfortunate event by making  it seem worse than it really was for political reasons.

The Gulf oil spill was a disaster for many reasons.   Eleven lives were tragically cut short.  Millions of dollars of equipment was destroyed.  Several million barrels of oil rather being put to productive spewed into the Gulf.  While we don't yet have a full accounting of the environmental damage the oil spill might ultimately cause, there is no question that the gulf's wildlife, the shore and the region's fisheries and recreation industries have suffered.

Environmentalists hyped the spill - in the absence of good evidence - variously as "America's Chernobyl," (Sierra Club), as "an unprecedented environmental disaster," (Natural Resources Defense Council) and "an unprecedented ecological and human tragedy," (Environmental Defense).

Echoing the environmentalist's claims, on several occasions, President Obama has called the Horizon blow out "the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history."  Fortunately, these are proving gross overstatements, since the damage from the spill is proving far less than their frightful claims.   

For instance, the Horizon blowout has killed far less than 1 percent of the number of birds killed by the Exxon Valdez spill.  And while we've heard horror stories and seen pictures of oil coated marine mammals, it turns out to be the same pictures shown over and over again since wildlife response teams have only collected three visibly oil coated dead mammals thus far.  It's true that about 350 acres of Louisiana's valuable coastal marshes have been soaked by oil. However, this far less that the 15,000 acres of wetlands lost each year due in no small part to the Federal programs including: the cutting of channels and canals for transport and the Army Corps stranglehold on the Mississippi's path of flow; federally subsidized flood and hurricane insurance that encourages people to develop (and redevelop after storms) coastal wetlands; and federal agriculture subsidies that encourage overproduction and the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers - the runoff of which contributes each year to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Despite the spill, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, prompting the gradual lifting of the harsh restrictions that had shut down the fishing and shrimping industries. 

Environmentalists hyped the spill in an attempt to push the Senate to pass the largest energy tax in history.  Though the Senate's energy bill had nothing to do with the safety of offshore oil rigs, the Green lobby tried to link the two in the public's mind.  Fortunately, neither the public, nor ultimately, many Senators were buying it.

Unfortunately, environmentalists were successful in convincing the Obama Administration to shut down new offshore oil and gas production after the spill.  This was despite that fact that the scientific panel which President Obama appointed to recommend a response, said that a moratorium was unjustified and could make a bad situation worse.  Though, the Administration's moratorium was struck down by two separate courts as illegal, in the meantime, offshore oil rig workers, their suppliers, and associated industries joined Gulf fishermen and hotel employees in the unemployment line.  Thirty-three offshore rigs were shuttered.  And the public coffers suffered a significant loss of revenues.

Theories for why the damage from the blowout has not been as great as expected range from the surface evaporation of much of the oil, to microbes eating it, to the currents and the dispersants simply dissipating the oil faster and to a greater degree than anticipated.  One possibility that few people are discussing is that we simply never had a reliable estimate of how much oil was spilled. While it was almost certainly a larger amount than BP and the government originally claimed, it was also likely considerably less than gargantuan claims made by environmentalists.

It is too soon to tell what long-term harms, if any, may result from the spill, but for the moment, it appears that we can all be thankful that the worst doomsday claims made by the green lobby have little relation to reality. The spill, as bad as it was, was another instance of environmentalists playing the role of Chicken Little. The sky was not falling, though we did experience some rough weather.

Dr. Burnett is a Senior Fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and non-partisan, not profit research institute with offices in Dallas, Texas and Washington, D.C.