Last month, I set out to write a fairly basic story about the Gulf oil spill and whether the oil really caused deformities in fish. I first called an oil chemist to get some background on how oil could cause those problems in the first place. From that conversation, I learned a huge amount—in particular, that everything I thought I knew about oil in the environment was pretty much wrong.
This first clicked early in our conversation, when I asked how long it takes for oil to degrade. I expected the answer to be: a very long time. That oil stays in the food chain indefinitely, poisoning wildlife. I am no idiot, and I paid close attention to the spill. But I still got this wrong. The oil chemist was able to explain to me not only that I was wrong, but why:
When the spill began, many people immediately assumed that oil entering the ecosystem would never break down. That’s because we are so familiar with environmental contaminants that stick around for a very long time, such as DDT, CFCs, or mercury. These take a long time to degrade naturally (or don't at all in the case of mercury), and hence persevere in the environment for a very long time.
In contrast, oil “can be readily degraded,” said Ed Overton, who studies the fate of oil after spills at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and is a lead researcher with GoMRI. “We’re talking about a completely different type of chemical.”
That absolutely blew my mind: the idea that we are so familiar with the DDT narrative—of chemicals that never break down—that I automatically applied that to oil, regardless of the facts.
Talking to the oil chemist put many of my biases in relief. I learned about what parts of oil are the most dangerous, and that most parts are safe to wildlife and people. I learned that it does break down in the environment, especially if there are ample oil-eating bacteria around (which there are in the Gulf). I learned how our livers can flush out oil molecules, even the most dangerous ones. I learned that pretty much anyone making predictions about the state of Gulf fisheries don't have enough information to draw those conclusions.
I figured that I wasn't alone in this lack of basic understanding of oil chemistry. So the article I was working on transformed into a list of common myths and misconceptions about the spill, including one about those deformed fish.
It's been interesting how many people have called me a BP flack since. It's as if a recovering Gulf—what environmentalists should hope for—could only exist to boost BP's image. During the spill, I was guilty of this attitude. The endlessly gushing well was the rare environmental impact that couldn't be easily hidden, that corporate America would have to deal with and pay for over an extended period. When the well was capped, I was almost disappointed that the show was over: we'd return to the status quo of corporate pollution going unseen and unpunished.
This attitude lives on in the Gulf's recovery. People don't want to hear that the Gulf is recovering because that raises the question of whether BP is off the hook. It seems just in our human arena, that BP is going to have to live with the harm it did to the Gulf forever, even if it meant wildlife continued to be at risk indefinitely.
We don't know everything yet. It will still be a few years before we know about the hit to fisheries, and monitoring the Gulf's wildlife will take constant vigilance. But if the Gulf is able to recover from 4.9 million barrels of oil, we should be grateful. Because it's not the wildlife that should "pay" in order to ensure that BP continues to get negative PR. That only distracts from the actual work that has to be done: reducing our consumption, individually, nationally, and globally, so we are less reliant on oil.
Happy Earth Day.
Photo: NOAA (Flickr)
Corrections: 4.9 million barrels of oil, not 4.9 billion gallons of oil were spilled; "raises the question of whether BP is off the hook" not "means that BP is off the hook" for clarity. (I'm not saying that BP is off the hook!)