NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Oil Spill Hysteria

January 5, 2011

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused many things.  Most recently, 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, says Robert H. Nelson, senior fellow at the Independent Institute and professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

  • 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.

Damage to wildlife, too, was relatively sparse, says Nelson.

  • 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 andno other reptile deaths were recorded.
  • While more than 1,000 sea otters alone died in the Alaska spill, only four oil-soiled mammals (including dolphins) had been found dead in the Gulf region.
  • Similarly, government agencies were unable to find any evidence of dead fish --nor was evidence found of contamination of live fish.

The media relied less on marine biologists and oil spill experts for their information and more on environmental groups.  The Gulf "disaster" offered multiple potential benefits to these groups, including the possibility of desired policy changes, says Nelson.

Source: Robert H. Nelson, "Oil Spill Hysteria," Independent Institute, December 13, 2010.

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