“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume. –Tony Hayward, CEO of BP (14 May 2010) 1
The rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded April 20th. Now (May 24th), as oil washes up on the shores and soaks birds and marshes of Louisiana,2 the public is starting to take stock of the reality behind the information campaign that has managed the public perception of the real – and unsustainable- cost of our energy demands.
These are things to consider as the Campbell government weighs the merits of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.
In weighing the information, it is important to consider that the majority of the public is really only presented with a facade in a large PR campaign. If the record of the Exxon Valdes is anything to go by, the people whose living will be most affected will live the long-term reality, for decades to come. In this, Mr Hayward is right, given time and space this impact may recede and be diluted away from our memories. But it will endure in the environment that sustains us.
Most of the clean-up begins in the media. Much of the information is managed and “cleaned up” to minimize the actual magnitude of the environmental impact. The actual and much talked about “clean-up” of the environmental impact is more aesthetic than substantial, as the historical record of precedents now shows (see below).
Clearly, the logic of Mr. Hayward could also be used to wish away and diminish the impacts of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Since the NOAA shut down fisheries in a 118,000-square-kilometer area of the gulf on May 18, before the oil’s landfall,3 reality has now come to loom large for both the economic and ecological systems of the Gulf of Mexico and the coastal Atlantic states.
People often have the wrong impression that the meaning of “official” might be synonymous with “truthful.” “Official” means: “Having the manner, or air usual with persons in office; formal, ceremonious.” 4 It is really just synonymous with “posturing.” “Official” is really little more than a dirty oily word favoured by slippery people intent on deceiving the public, or “managing” a problem.
I am not alone with this impression. Just this morning, the Nobel laureate economist, Paul Krugman, notes:
“But has the clean-up even started? Every day there’s another news story with Ken Salazar firmly declaring that he’s losing patience with BP.... he’ll make another firm declaration tomorrow. Meanwhile... we get stories about MMS officials partying with cakes inscribed “Drill, baby, drill.” 5
We live in a welter of statistics. It is an essential part of what some rightly call: “The Age of Persuasion.” 6 It is often hard to tell the difference between factual information and advertisement. Whether it be in sports, in advertisement or in politics, figures are liberally used to “inform” the public.
The public is easily mesmerized by these “statistics.” There is something re-assuring about numbers. Numbers give the impression that people using them might have a handle on the situation. Numbers can be verified. They are the foundation of science and truth, but in this case, numbers have as much credibility as magic, they are used to mesmerize, and confirm Mark Twain’s famous dictum “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”
That gives a bad name to statistics, particularly for those of us who are very fond of statistics and math. Well-used statistics are valid tools to get at the truth. Those of us who have sat through years of lectures on statistics, know something that the public, and many of the officials who generate computer statistics do not. The value of statistics depends entirely on understanding the assumptions and frames of reference behind them. Without that, the numbers themselves are just magic and trickery.
The assumptions behind the official statistics which the Obama administration has endorsed from BP, are clearly stated above by Mr. Hayward. The central assumptions are that the volume is “a drop in the ocean,” and “the dispersant is harmless.”
After over a month it is clear that the official version of the unfolding catastrophe, underestimates the actual magnitude of this impact. When scientists were finally allowed to view underwater video of the blow-out, they were able to statistically analyse these “hard-data” to determine that the actual output was not the oft-repeated figure of 5,000 barrels a day, but something closer to one Exonn Valdes every four days. 7
At least 655,000 gallons of the dispersant “Corexittm.” were diluted into Gulf waters. 8 For this emergency, large amounts of different variants of Corexit were collected from countries around the world. The composition of these dispersants varies with the legislation governing hazardous substances in these different countries. It was initially difficult for NOAA to determine just how toxic Corexit variants were, because their composition is a trade secret.
While this dispersant did much to allay public concern in the media, Congress heard devastating testimony that the dispersant was ineffective and was mainly used for PR. Lisa Jackson, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency, noted that the agents in Corexit are known to be toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic, but that their impact is unknown at this scale.9
What the Public Should Know
There are a four things that the public should know.
- Every major oil spill is “different” either because of the difference in site, in the type of accident, or in the type of oil contaminant. 10
- Scientists are trying to answer what the fate of this oil will be. “To date scientists are far from answering any of these questions.” 11
- Restoration is a very new science, and restored environments are nowhere near as ecologically sound or complex as the original ecosystem. 12
- Given items 2 and 3, impacts such as we are now seeing in the Gulf of Mexico are akin to a large uncontrolled and irreversible experiment.
Item 4 should give us most pause to think. As I have pointed out elsewhere, 13 to a large extent these accidents are an expected risk inherent in our energy needs. The lifestyle expectations of a North-American-style consumer society, which have become those of China and India and most of the Third World, drive the need to increase risks inherent in the development of energy resources. The problem, therefore, does not begin with BP, but with us. Our lifestyle is a large uncontrolled experiment.
What Precedents Tell Us
Somewhat ironically, a very interesting piece of research on the environmental impact of oil was published April 14, six days before the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, by UBC`s Daniel Esler in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.14 Dr. Esler and his team showed that over 20 years after the Exxon Valdes spill, wildlife in Prince William Sound is still ingesting oil residues, and continues to be adversely affected by these contaminants.
In itself the research should have come as no surprise, since wildlife contamination has been a concern ever since remediation efforts were “officially closed” in 1994. The In a somewhat surprising move for anybody familiar with “pollution abatement curves,” officials terminated remediation when they determined oil degradation had reached a rate of 70% per annum during the “clean-up”. The stated assumption was that the remaining oil would continue to somehow degrade and be absorbed by the system at that rate. (However, pollution remediation curves tell us that the first 70% are relatively cheap and easy to remove – it is the last 20% that always pose a problem.)
Although researchers have continued to observe adverse impacts on orcas, sea otters and harlequin ducks, the official and corporate position was that the PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) did not come from crude oil, but from readily available local coal seams. It was only in September 2009 that a German team led by Dr. Deepthike, identified the PAH’s to be specific to the Exxon Valdes,15 thereby putting an end to the “official” ... lie.
In January 2010 Drs. Hailong Li and Michel Boufadel cracked an essential part of the problem. A substantial part of the remaining oil is literally “sandwiched” in low oxygen and nutrient poor sands where it cannot be degraded by bacterial action.16 It remains as a continuously bioavailable contaminant within the ecosystem, and thereby affects the base of foodchain.
This phenomenon is not unique to Prince William Sound. Its long-term implications for ecosystem impacts have also been observed on the eastern seaboard. In 1969, the barge “Florida” ran aground spilling 200,000 gallons of petroleum fuel into Silver Beach and Wild Harbor on Cape Cod (Mass.). Here as elsewhere, wildlife initially died “en-masse,” but after a while people thought that the harm would be temporary. Official policy and information did much to reinforce this belief and hope. Today the reality seems to be quite different and interesting.
Research is currently being carried out on these impacts by a team at the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution. As Dr. Janet Culbertson et al. note in their introduction to a paper on adverse impacts on mussels, even after forty years of spills, we know very little about the actual impact of petroleum-related substances on our shorelines :
“The lingering effect on coastal ecosystems following long-term exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons remains one of the largest unknowns.” 17
What Culbertson et al. have since found since should be of concern to any population that might contemplate the possibility of risking oil-spill impacts. Not only are the impacts largely unkown, but what we do know suggests that spills cannot be simply “cleaned up.” They do not simply dilute and degrade away, out of sight and out of mind.
Further work by the same team on fiddler crabs suggests that basic ecosystem function is altered for several decades: 18
“Today, Wild Harbor looks pretty much like any other Cape Cod marsh, but the oil below the surface affects its resiliency. Fiddler crabs normally burrow deep down, funnelling oxygen to the roots of marsh grass. Here, they stop digging, when they reach the oil, turn sideways and burrow back to the surface. They also act “drunk” from the oil they ingest and predators can catch them more easily...” 19
While the image of drunken Fiddler crabs might be amusing, the reality is that fiddler crabs are a keystone species which shapes the ecosystems it inhabits. If fiddler crab behaviour is modified, or they are adversely affected by contaminants, then the rest of the system will be re-shaped. It is de-graded.
We may be able to repair marshes that are impacted by oil spills to the point that they will appear to tourists as indistinguishable from un-affected marshes, but the bottom-line is that the damage inflicted is a long-term damage to ecosystem function. We may not immediately see the difference, but the organisms that inhabit and make up these systems can, and we are far from fully understanding the complexity of these systems.
The Truth of Impacts
What scientists know today from research on the long-term environmental impact of incidents such as the Exxon Valdes and Cape Cod’s 1969 “Florida,” is mainly that we know very little. This is, indeed, “a large unknown.” What we do know with certainty, is that the kind of “dilution” model upheld by the oil industry – and in particular in the words of the CEO of BP- is flawed and unsustainable.
It is a view of the planet as a garbage dump.
Oil spills, as any form of waste or pollution, cannot simply be wished away to accommodate us. We must meet the challenge by “closing the energy and resource loop.” Our world is shrinking, as our human footprint on this planet increases, and our natural resources become increasingly riskier to extract and more costly to use. If we care about impacts, we must control the demands we make on this planet.
Impacts are not just the spectacular failures that shock us into a collective realization of our potential capacity to damage our home place and render it inhospitable for generations to come. Impacts are the product of the daily demands we make on the environment.
The truth about impacts is that they are desired by no single individual, or corporation, but are daily sanctioned by official self-serving mis-information and posturing.
Our relationship with “official” needs to change. We need some hard truth, if as Bill McKibben suggests: “…On our new planet, growth may be the one habit we must finally break.” 20
1. Tim Webb (14 May 2010). `BP boss admits job on line over Gulf oil spill. The Guardian.
2. Kevin McGill (21 May 2010). “Oil washes into marshes of Louisiana,” Boston Globe; Greg Bluestone (24 May 2010). “ Oil soaks birds, marshes in La.” Boston Globe.
3. Richard A. Kerr; Eli Kintisch; Laura Schenkman and Erik Stokstad (21 May 2010). “Five Questions on the Spill.” Science 328.
4. Official adjective: 1. Performing some office or service, or subservient to -1677. 2. Of or pertaining to an office, post or place 1607. 3. Of persons: Holding office, employed in public capacity 1833. 4. Derived from, or having sanction of persons in office; hence authorized, authoritative 1854.... 5. Having the manner, or air usual with persons in office; formal, ceremonious 1882. Oxford English Dictionary.
5. Paul Krugman (24 May 2010). “Something Rotten at Interior.” The New York Times.
6. Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant (2009). The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture. Knopf. 352pages.
7. Richard Kerr, Eli Kintisch and Erik Stokstad (7 May 2010). “Will Deepwater Horizon Set a New Standard for Catastrophe. Science 328, 674-675.
8. Suzanne Goldenberg (20 May 2010). “Gulf Oil chemical dispersant too toxic EPA orders”. The Guardian.
9. quoted in: Suzanne Goldenberg (20 May 2010). “Gulf Oil chemical dispersant too toxic EPA orders”. The Guardian.
10. Culbertson, J.B., Valida, I. Peacock, E.C., Reddy, CM, Carter, C.M. and Van der Kruik, R. (2007). “Long-term biological effects of petroleum: Response of fiddler crabs to oil in salt marsh sediments. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54: 955-962.
11. Richard A. Kerr; Eli Kintisch; Laura Schenkman and Erik Stokstad (21 May 2010). “Five Questions on the Spill.” Science 328.
12. More recently, and among many others: Bantilan-Smith, M., Bruland, G., MacKenzie, R., Henry, A., & Ryder, C. (2009). A Comparison of the Vegetation and Soils of Natural, Restored, and Created Coastal Lowland Wetlands in Hawai‘i Wetlands, 29 (3), 1023-1035 DOI: 10.1672/08-127.1
13. Loys Maingon (10 May 2010) “Site C” and The Gulf Oil Spill, Sustainability, and Risks. Sustainable Coast (www.sustainablecoast.ca)
14. Daniel Esler, Kimberley A Trust, Brenda E. Bachey, Samuel A Iverson, Tylet L. Lewis, Daniel J. Rizzolo, Daniel M. Mulcahy, A. Keith Miles, Bruce R. Woodin, John J. Stegeman, John D. Henderson, Barry W. Wilson (2010). “Cytochrome P4501A biomarker indication of oil exposure in Harlequin ducks up to 20 years after the Exxon Valdes oil soil.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 10: 1002-1029.
15. Deepthike, H.U., Tecon, R., van Kooten, G., van der Meer, J.R., Harms, H., Wells, M., Short, J. (2009). “Unlike PAHs from Exxon Valdes Crude Oil, PAHs from Gulf of Alaska Coals are not Readily Bioavailable.” Environmental Science and Technology 43 (15).
16. Hailong Li, Michel C. Boufadel (2010). “Long-term persistence of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in two-layer beaches. Nature Geoscience 3:96-99.
17. Culbertson J.B., I. Valida, Y. Olsen and C.M. Reddy (2007) “Effect of field exposure to a 38-year residual petroleum hydrocarbon spill on growth, condition index and filtration rate of the ribbed mussel Geukensia demissa. https://darchive.mblwhoilrary.org/bitstream/handle/1912/1958/Culbertson%20et%20al.%202008.pdf?sequence=1
18. Culbertson, J.B., Valida, I. Peacock, E.C., Reddy, CM, Carter, C.M. and Van der Kruik, R. (2007). “Long-term biological effects of petroleum: Response of fiddler crabs to oil in salt marsh sediments. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54: 955-962.
19. Beth Daley (21 May 2010). “Damage lives on from 1969 Cape oil spill. Boston Globe.
20. Bill McKibben (April 2010). “Breaking the Growth Habit.” Scientific American 302:4, 61.