First there was the bizarre AFP report asking where all the oil in the Gulf could have possibly gone. Then a breaking news alert from the New York Times landed in my inbox Tuesday night declaring "Gulf of Mexico Oil Slick Appears to Vanish Quickly," which seemed to imply that because a few reporters hadn't noticed much crude on a flyover, it must have magically disappeared. (The alert failed to mention the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant that BP dumped on the spill to do exactly that).
Today we have yet another example of the news media promoting the idea that the Gulf disaster might not be all that bad after all, with Time's big piece, "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?"
The story starts out by offering Rush Limbaugh as a voice of reason on the disaster against all the "end-is-nigh eco-hype," even while calling him an "obnoxious anti-environmentalist." That should give you a sense of where the story is heading. And then it goes there:
Well, Rush has a point. The Deepwater explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it's no leak; it's the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It's also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.
In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn't even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn't yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn't over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country's top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.
"The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don't know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers," says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.
Referring to the Time article's author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, "I'm not sure what boats he's been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it's too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don't think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect."