Haley Barbour, Oil Expert


There have been many stupid stories in the past weeks about the Gulf oil spill. But this one might just take the cake: “Mississippi leaders: Spill’s environmental impact overhyped.”

It’s hard to know where to begin on this one. Perhaps the most important question: When did Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour become an expert on oil toxicity?

Barbour, DMR Director Bill Walker, DEQ Director Trudy Fisher and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant have all described the oil and tar that has made its way to Mississippi waters and shores as “nontoxic.” Barbour said the “first cuts,” or volatile chemicals in the crude such as benzene, evaporate quickly near the well site and that the oil that makes it further into the Gulf is “emulsified and weathered.”

Wait, it gets more comical: Oil is just like toothpaste, according to Barbour:

Barbour has also said the risk to wildlife from oiling is not as bad as some have been saying.

“Once it gets to this stage, it’s not poisonous,” Barbour said. “But if a small animal got coated enough with it, it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.”

I wonder if it’s Barbour’s years as a big-time lobbyist for interests like tobacco and big oil that qualify him to render these informed opinions. In fact, Barbour’s time lobbying for dirty energy interests appears to be his only qualification for talking about the subject.

At least the others quoted in the article are nominally better prepared to comment on the science. But that doesn’t make them any less wrong. Contrary to what they state in the piece, oil is toxic, it’s not just “CO2 and water” as one state official implies, and evidence has shown that it is getting into the food chain. But maybe reality is different in Mississippi.

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  • Kate Sheppard was a staff reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau from 2009 to 2013. She is now a senior reporter and the energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post. She can be reached by email at kate (dot) sheppard (at) huffingtonpost (dot) com and you can follow her on Twitter @kate_sheppard.