Can we call the BP #oilpocalypse a “catastrophe” now?

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Top hat, hot tap, top kill, junk shot, and a second BOP have all either failed or been scrapped. Relief wells seem to be the only viable solution remaining.

The Boston Globe’s inestimable The Big Picture has some of the heart-rending images we’d so far been spared during the ongoing BP spill. Such pictures played no small role in galvanizing public opinion in the wake of other spills, such as the Exxon Valdez back in ’89.

NOAA has shut down 37% of the Gulf federal fishing area, a doubling of the zone declared off-limits May 18. Brad Johnson notes that this might not be extensive enough, as oil appears to have spread into Florida waters still open to fishing.

It’s looking like we can expect another two months of this.

Not to kick MT when he’s already recognized his error, but this serves as a reminder that things can just as easily turn out worse than predicted as they can better. Something we should all keep in mind before assuming that we’ve dodged a bullet.

The blogosphere seems to be particularly tickled by this xkcd cartoon, with its deserved barb at the media’s insatiable desire for sensationalism. I laughed the first time I read it as well. But the first panel seems to me to be the most relevant, and incredibly sobering.

My first post on the Deepwater Horizon was back on April 22. At the time if you had asked me what the worst-case scenario would be, I would have said it would be that the missing employees were dead and oil was leaking from the rig. When it became clear that oil was indeed leaking and the missing were dead, I would have said the worst case would be oil hitting the fragile Gulf ecosystems.

This is the concept of shifting baselines mutated by the 24-hour news cycle environment.

The worst-case scenario is what’s happening now.

2 responses to “Can we call the BP #oilpocalypse a “catastrophe” now?

  1. your comments are spot on

  2. The worst case is all that oil hitting the coast, especially in the Louisiana wetlands. So in that sense we are still not to the worst case and it looks like we will avoid it.

    If you compare the impact at the coast and in the shallow water, which is the dominant impact, my sense is that we are still far from the Valdez, even though the amount of oil spilled into the water is greater. This apparently is primarily because the spill was offshore and in a hot climate, and secondarily because of efforts to keep the oil from landing.

    This is not the “worst” such event in US history by many measures, although the impacted area is probably be the largest attributable to any single industrial accident. Even BP itself has a comparable recent event in the Texas City disaster.

    I’m not saying this is good news, nor am I saying that BP, especially before the event, was blameless. Far from it! There is plenty of evidence of gross negligence.

    I am saying this is not as bad as you would get from estimating the scale of the impact directly from the scale of the Valdez impact and the amount of oil released, which is apparently what many people are doing.

    Please read this article for perspective:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/opinion/05iht-edejikeme.html

    It is not an apology or a defense for the oil companies!

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