This is tragic in so many ways, the main way, I think, is that no one is sure how much oil is flowing out of this uncapped well and just what the long-term consequences may be. I’ve seen statements that the flow may have already exceeded the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, and that at the current rate, the Valdez spill will be matched in a month or so.
And as bad as all this sounds, some perspective is helpful. For example, the low end estimate of the flow, 210,000 gallons a day is, like the PBS site linked above notes, is the equivalent of filling up one olympic sized pool every three days. Yes, it doesn’t take much oil to contaminate a lot of water, but how many olympic sized pools could you fit into the Gulf of Mexico? We’re probably talking about the equivalent of a few drops in a bathtub, right?
I’ve also seen several references which mentions that seven million gallons of oil and fuel were spilled in southeast Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. One contemporaneous news story I found backs that up:
44 Oil Spills Found in Southeast Louisiana, MSNBC, Sept. 19, 2005This story notes - and this was three weeks after Katrina - that by then “1.3 million gallons had evaporated or dispersed”. As nasty as all that oil on the open water is, its not going to be an ocean of black sludge forever, or possibly even into the near future. Some of it will evaporate and much of it will eventually be dispersed naturally: the Gulf of Mexico is BIG and as horrific as these images are, and as bad as New Orleans has smelled a few days this past week, the lingering effects will probably not be as horrific as some of the current predictions suggest. A few stories I read even noted that, yes, crude oil is biodegradable. All of it isn’t just going to evaporate and biodegrade overnight but, yes, it bears repeating, crude oil is biodegradable. I even found an authoritative source that supports this:
Biodegradation, in The Environment Dictionary By David D. KempAhh - and a story on the National Geographic web site I just read (Twitter really is most useful during events like these), mentions that the smell we smell when the wind is coming our way, and which people down on the coast are apparently smelling all the time, is
[T]he pungent scent of evaporating surface oil, which rises into the atmosphere and gets broken down by sunlight.So there are natural processes at work that will help mitigate the oil spew. We shouldn’t wash our hands of BP’s culpability and leave it at that, but, no, its probably not going to be the end of the world for the Gulf Coast and the fishing industry.
But it’s the unknowable aspect of this that is most alarming and, like many other people have said, its like watching the possible projected path of a Cat 5 hurricane when its three days out: you just don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, and you feel completely helpless while you’re waiting.
And on a possibly related tangent: inspired by one of the only blogs I look at regularly, What I Saw Riding My Bike Around Today (the excellent photo-journal/blog of a nameless fellow bicycler), I’ve started carrying my small digital camera with me. And Thursday, while taking a varied route to work, I saw this stenciled message on Prytania:
Since I don’t ride by there regularly, I don’t know if its new, I’m not sure what it means, and I’m not even sure if this has anything to do with the BP oil spew. No references online to the phrase “Oil Dances Uninhibited” that I could find. Is it a comment on the oil spill? On dancing? An exhortation that we should dance in as uninhibited a manner as the oil spill is dancing over the Gulf waters? I’m baffled.
Despite my possibly unfounded optimism, I am still concerned, so concerned I put that PBS Gulf Leak Meter up on the right there. Yes, like a lapel ribbon, it shows my sincere, deep concern.