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Naomi Klein: Hunting the Ocean for BP's Missing Millions of Barrels of Oil

As the gulf is declared "safe," scientists look deep in the sea for evidence of lasting damage.
 
 
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"Dolphins off the bow!"

I race to the front of the WeatherBird II, a research vessel owned by the University of South Florida. There they are, doing their sleek silvery thing, weaving between translucent waves, disappearing under the boat, reappearing in perfect formation on the other side.

After taking my fill of phone video (and very pleased not to have dropped the device into the Gulf of Mexico), I bump into Gregory Ellis, one of the junior scientists aboard.

"Did you see them?" I ask excitedly.

"You mean the charismatic megafauna?" he sneers. "I'll pass."

Ouch. Here I was thinking everyone loves dolphins, especially oceanographers. But it turns out that these particular marine scientists have issues with dolphins. And sea turtles. And pelicans. It's not that they don't like them (a few of the grad students took Flipper pictures of their own). It's just that the charismatic megafauna tend to upstage the decidedly less charismatic creatures under their microscopes. Like the bacteria and phytoplankton that live in the water column, for instance, or 500-year-old coral and the tube worms that burrow next to them, or impossibly small squid the size of a child's fingernail.

Normally these academics would be fine without our fascination. They weren't looking for glory when they decided to study organisms most people either can't see or wish they hadn't. But when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010, our collective bias toward cute big creatures started to matter a great deal. That's because the instant the spill-cam was switched off and it became clear that there would be no immediate mass die-offs among dolphins and pelicans, at least not on the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill deaths, most of us were pretty much on to the next telegenic disaster. (Chilean miners down a hole—and they've got video diaries? Tell us more!)

It didn't help that the government seemed determined to help move us along. Just three weeks after the wellhead was capped, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) came out with its notorious "oil budget," which prompted White House energy czar Carol Browner to erroneously claim that "the vast majority of the oil is gone." The White House corrected the error (the fate of much of that oil is simply unknown), but the budget nonetheless inspired a flood of stories about how "doom-mongers" had exaggerated the spill's danger and, as the British Daily Mail tabloid indignantly put it, unfairly wronged "one of Britain's greatest companies."

More recently, in mid-December, Unified Area Command, the joint government-BP body formed to oversee the spill response, came out with a fat report that seemed expressly designed to close the book on the disaster. Mike Utsler, BP's Unified Area Commander, summed up its findings like this: "The beaches are safe, the water is safe, and the seafood is safe." Never mind that just four days earlier, more than 8,000 pounds of tar balls were collected on Florida's beaches—and that was an average day. Or that gulf residents and cleanup workers continue to report serious health problems that many scientists believe are linked to dispersant and crude oil exposure.

By the end of the year, investors were celebrating BP's stock rebound, and the company was feeling so emboldened that it revealed plans to challenge the official estimates of how much oil gushed out of its broken wellhead, claiming that the figures are as much as 50 percent too high. If BP succeeds, it could save the company as much as $10.5 billion in damages. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has just given the go-ahead for sixteen deepwater projects to resume in the gulf, well before the Oil Spill Commission's safety recommendations have a hope of being implemented.

 
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