The BP spill is already gone and forgotten

bp_oil_spill_la_100519.top.jpg By Shelley DuBois, reporter


FORTUNE -- BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster may have drawn more public attention than any other oil spill, but there's a good chance that sordid history of spill cleanup efforts will repeat itself. That history is to bomb the crude with chemicals so it's out of sight, then place the incident out of mind once the slick appears to be gone.

The National Incident Command led by Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen put together a team of independent scientists and experts from government agencies. The group issued a report on the amount of oil left in the Gulf of Mexico, making the point that most of the oil has been cleaned up or biodegraded.

Apparently, only 26% is left to deal with from the original spill of 205 million gallons. The remaining oil that hasn't washed ashore is below the surface of the water as a light sheen and balls, or buried in the sand, or even evaporated into the atmosphere. In other words: out of sight.

Traditionally, once oil is out of sight, the public push for follow-up studies disappears with it.

The remaining oil should biodegrade relatively fast because the spill happened in water with a population of bacteria primed to break up oil. But we would know a lot more about how this spill was going to affect the gulf if scientists and the government had researched the effects the last time this happened, in 1979.

But there were no real follow-up studies after a rig called the Ixtoc 1 caught fire that year, and ultimately dumped over 140 million gallons of oil into the gulf. The Mexican petroleum company Pemex sprayed an earlier version of Nalco's (NLC) dispersant Corexit-which was also used, controversially, to clean this spill-on the slick.

There is no model for good government follow-up on the damage done by oil spills. And there's even less known about the potential for environmental damage caused by the almost 2 million gallons of dispersant pumped into the gulf to deal with the oil.

The report issued by National Incident Command says:

Our knowledge of the oil, dispersants, ecosystem impacts and human impacts will continue to evolve. Federal agencies and many academic and independent scientists are actively pursuing better understanding of the fate, transport and impact of the oil.

The report also mentioned a website where people could monitor the spill cleanup. This kind of transparency surrounding a spill cleanup is novel, as is the demand for it. Because of the impact of websites and new media, more may be learned about this spill than any that has come before it, and the public may demand more of the government and BP in that effort.

But public outcry for information does not necessarily translate into funding for the types of intensive years-long studies that would likely be needed to provide data on a spill like this one. BP (BP) is facing down huge losses and a tanking stock price, and has already had to replace CEO Tony Heyward in order to try to save the company.

The Obama administration is operating in an environment where every action it takes in relation to the spill is demonized by the political opposition, making the likelihood of it authorizing the millions in research funding needed for such studies slim to none.There is little incentive for the government or industry to try to understand the impact of a spill when both sides are pledging that such spills should never happen again.

(Of course, the legislation that would tighten regulations on off shore oil rigs is in limbo, thanks to arguments over liability in such spills. So even though a spill is not supposed to happen again; politicians are happy to fight over who will pay what next time it does.)

That leaves private universities or public institutions that control their own research funding left as the sole candidates to sponsor studies on the impact of the spill in the gulf. Research institutions aren't flush right now, facing their own problems of declining endowments and a general underfunding of pure scientific research, as opposed to industry-sponsored activity. Even if several small studies are set up, it would take an unprecedencted level of coooperation in the scientific community to coordinate them into one overarching effort or report.

But the practice of bombing oil with chemicals, then leaving, will probably fly again. Estimates are taking the edge off of the damage done in all kinds of ways. The Florida economy, which people thought would be skewered by the spill, is, according to a story in the Miami Herald, only going to suffer $2 billion in damages, not the originally estimated $11 billion.

That's an 80% drop in the financial cost of the spill, which is a good thing for Florida and the US economy. But there's still over 50 million gallons of actual oil remaining, mostly underwater. It's going to be difficult to make the economic case to clean up or study the oil and residual dispersant as long as both liquids, and the problems they might cause, stay beneath the surface. To top of page

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