Deepwater Horizon: Drawn-Out Tempest in a Teacup

By Harold Brown

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was called catastrophic by many. President Obama declared, “This oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced;” the National Resource Defense Council said, two years later, “a people wronged and a region scarred remains.”

Five years later, what remains of this “worst environmental disaster” and “scarred” region?

There were many projections, estimates and guesses – before and after the well was finally capped – about how many millions of barrels of crude spilled into the Gulf. Photos of pelicans slimed in oil, dolphins smothered, beaches covered in black, and tar-balls strewn like rocks on otherwise white sand were shown to prove how devastating it was.

Five years later there is yet no answer whether, when, or how it will be restored. There is even very little information on how it was damaged. Enormous amounts of oil were swept up, siphoned, burned and dispersed by oil workers and clean-up crews soon after the spill. A much greater volume was cleaned up naturally by evaporation, settling to the ocean bottom and consumption by micro-organisms. After all, the Gulf has to assimilate about 1 million barrels per year that seep naturally into its waters.

Today, it is hard to find evidence of the disaster, or even scars. The Gulf commercial seafood harvest was barely affected except in 2010 when portions of the gulf was placed off-limits for fishing. The next year’s catch was the highest since 2000. The harvest for 2012-13 was within 1 percent of the 2008-09 harvest.

Recreational fishing trips averaged 24 million per year from 2007 to 2013. Twenty-two million visited in 2010, but in 2013, there were 26 million fishing for fun in the Gulf. The average annual catch of recreational fishers in the three years after the spill was 110 percent of the preceding three years.

One creature widely lamented in news and publication for its damage was the bottlenose dolphin. Yearly strandings (beachings, death or injury) more than tripled during 2010-2013 compared to years before the oil spill. But it is not clear how damaging that was to the population; estimates are old and uncertain. Estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some as old as 1992-94, for different parts of the Gulf, total about 40,000.

So in five years, less than 3 percent of the estimated population was stranded because of oil or some other reason. Dolphin strandings decreased by almost half in 2014 and for the first three months of 2015 were lower than before the spill.

Sea birds were also said to be decimated. The Audubon Society claimed more than 1 million birds died. Thirty-six percent of the Laughing Gull population in the northern Gulf of Mexico was said to have died during the 95-day “acute phase” of the spill.

But the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts on the Gulf coast show no such effects. The yearly average of Laughing Gulls seen per observer per hour from 2006 to 2014 was 19.6, excluding 2009 when the number was five times as high. In the most recent three years the number was 19.9. The poster bird for oiling of wildlife, the Brown Pelican, was seen at a rate of about four per observer per hour in the three years before and after the spill.

Whatever kind of disaster the BP oil spill caused, it was a wonderful fund-raiser. Money is set to be poured on governments, non-profits, producers and various victims to “restore the Gulf.” At least, it will be when the big lawsuit is settled.

In the Restore Act of 2012, Congress established the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. The Executive Director’s report to Congress at the end of 2014 contained a striking admission of delay: that, “four years after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the Council is well‐positioned to begin the process of selecting and funding restoration projects and programs across the Gulf of Mexico.” Five years after the oil spill is rather late to be “selecting and funding” projects.

The U.S. Treasury Department established a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund for receipt and dispersal of money from civil penalties against parties responsible for the oil spill, mainly BP Exploration and Production. As of March, the fund had $800 million available for restoration. Apparently none of it has been dispersed. But the pot of gold on the minds of those most interested in the trust fund is somewhere around $20 billion still in litigation against BP.

That can fund a lot of restoration, but some categories acceptable for funding appear unrelated or unnecessary. In addition to “restoring” fish and fowl, there are these political works of restoration “…workforce development and job creation; improvements to state parks; infrastructure projects, including ports; coastal flood protection; and promotion of tourism and Gulf seafood.”

Oil that washed up on Gulf shores and floated near the spill was cleaned up quickly and efficiently, and what records are available show that human efforts were nearly insignificant compared to restoration by the nature of the great Gulf. But that isn’t stopping the federal government, which appears nearly ready to restore the humans who occupy the coast, thanks to BP.

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 17, 2015). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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