Do the math on the oil spill: Editorial


Two weeks after BP’s geyser was stopped, the federal government is reporting that only 26 percent of the oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico — the rest has reportedly been skimmed, siphoned, burned, dispersed or digested by microbes in the warm water.

Louisiana residents certainly hope that this estimate is accurate. It would be a testament to the Gulf’s restorative powers, offering hope for a fast recovery from one of the worst oil spills in history. The reopening last week of commercial fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River for shrimp and finfish was an encouraging development as well.

From the start of the disaster, though, the government has badly underestimated the amount of oil spewing from the runaway well. That poor track record makes people understandably skeptical of Wednesday’s report. “There’s still a lot of distrust there,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said.

Even 26 percent of a spill as massive as the Deepwater Horizon is a significant amount — 50 million gallons. Paul Sammarco, a marine ecology professor with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, points out that’s nearly five times the quantity of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill, which had previously been the worst in U.S. history.

It’s important to note that another 24 percent of the oil is dispersed, either through natural action or chemical agents. “Dispersed is not the same thing as vaporized,” Wesley Warren of the National Resources Defense Council pointed out. “Half of the oil is still in the ecosystem, and we shouldn’t conclude this problem has largely been resolved.”

Even as the oil continues to break down, BP has a substantial obligation that it hasn’t yet fulfilled. The oil giant must not be allowed to use rosy estimates to shirk its responsibility to pay for the damage it’s caused to the Gulf Coast environment and economy.

BP still has to deliver the first installment of the $20 billion compensation fund that it agreed to create. And the company hasn’t responded to other reasonable requests. For example, Gov. Bobby Jindal has asked BP to pay $173 million to cover the first five years of a seafood testing program to help restore consumer confidence in this economically important product. If after five years, oil is still found in tissue samples, the state would ask for an additional three years. Considering the damage done to our seafood’s image, the request deserves an affirmative answer.

In Plaquemines Parish, Mr. Nungesser is asking BP to leave boom and skimming equipment on hand for two years so that the local government can deal with slicks that may surface from the remaining oil. That makes sense, and other local governments would be smart to seek similar arrangements.

State and local governments should take stock of their needs now that emergency response is giving way to recovery. Gov. Jindal already has scaled back his original request for the seafood testing program, for example. His administration has pushed for rock jetties and sand berms, too, but it doesn’t make sense to pursue plans that Louisiana coastal scientists view as detrimental and that seem unnecessary.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says that the administration is not hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner across this event, and that’s reassuring. Even if only 26 percent of the oil remains, the work of assessing the damage to our lives isn’t finished. This region must overcome lingering perceptions of contamination, not only of seafood but of fishing and hunting grounds, beaches and other tourist destinations.

BP still has a long way to go in addressing the many consequences of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Until then, the administration needs to keep pressure on BP to make it right.

1 comment

  • They’re using the word “dispersed” as if it means “gone”. It just means “spread out”. For that matter, all of the oil that isn’t “contained” is dispersed — some just more than others. Dispersing the oil may help it break down faster, but the process of breaking it down still affects the environment.

    They also use the term “evaporated” like it’s a good thing. That just means that the oil moved from the water to the air — so then we get to breathe it.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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