With the recent news cycle being dominated by coverage of the five-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, it pays to take a few minutes to reflect on it. While the fear of those early days of fouled water and stained beaches has faded, there’s one thing we should never forget: it could have been worse. A lot worse.
Basically, BP punched a hole in a pressurized underground balloon of oil and natural gas, which came spurting out when the plug – the well – sprang a leak. It was only at this unfortunate moment that everyone involved – BP, the government, the oil industry and all of us – realized that no one had adequately prepared for such a moment. In fact, the oil industry’s preparation mostly amounted to not really worrying too much about it. And the government regulators charged with overseeing their preparation? They were basically asleep at the wheel.
Before it was all over, in my mind the worst-case scenario could be pictured as imagining the Gulf of Mexico as a giant bathtub filled with oil that leaves, as one person described it, a bathtub ring as large as Rhode Island. And there is no magic bathtub cleaner that could scrub this ring away in one swipe by a smiling housewife wearing pearls. Worse, once the tub was filled the Gulf Stream would begin draining the oil down past the tip of Florida – painting the Keys black in passing – and on into the Atlantic. How long this lasted depended on how long the spill lasted.
Fortunately, the leak was plugged while the only damage was a catastrophic impact on the Gulf and the coastal states where the oil washed ashore.
In assessing the impact, we of course start with the 11 people killed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig by the explosion and fire. We’ll never know how truly horrible it was for them, although we are left with the photos and video of the blazing rig to give us a hint.
What we also have is visual documentation of the devastating impact of the spill on the water, our beaches, our coastal wetlands and on wildlife. The pictures of pelicans and other birds so fouled in toxic sludge that they couldn’t be saved should sear our memories forever.
This week, a small part of an NPR report brought home to me just how fundamentally unsettling this spill was. The report mentioned that at the beginning of the spill adult birds trying to feed in increasingly fouled waters would return to the nest with their feathers coated in oil, settle on their nests and poison the eggs or young they were tending. Over millions of years of adaptation nature had come up with nothing to equip these birds to deal with a massive oil spill; they simply couldn’t comprehend it. So they tried to go on about their normal activities, with the result that they poisoned themselves and their progeny.
If being responsible for such a nightmare doesn’t wake up humanity as a species to our responsibilities to the natural world, I am frightened to imagine what it would take.