The Coast Is Not Clear

Aug 17th, 2010 | By businessnews | Category: Business

Though the BP oil spill’s impact is much less severe than feared, long-term threats remain: wetlands destruction, dead zones, and climate change. They make the spill look almost minor

Bloomberg News

Peter Coy

Visit the Gulf of Mexico today and you’d hardly recognize it as the scene of what President Barack Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” It’s as if scientists had conducted an insane experiment—dumping some 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean water—and discovered that its effect was in some ways negligible. Some 21 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, you can still find globs of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Yet the Gulf appears to be scrubbing itself: Sunshine is evaporating—and bacteria are rapidly digesting—the spilled oil. Less crude has infiltrated vulnerable wetlands than was widely feared. Documented fish and bird kills have been small, and most Gulf beaches remain pristine.

Although serious concerns remain about the spill’s long-term impact on coastal wetlands and deepwater creatures, the short-term trend is unmistakably positive: On Aug. 10 the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it was opening an additional 5,000 square miles of the Gulf to fishing, leaving 22 percent of federal waters still closed. Harlon Pearce, who runs a wholesale seafood business in Kenner, La., says that with more fish and shellfish passing rigorous smell tests and chemical assays, “I really feel good that we’re going to be getting into large production this September, October, and November.” Morgan Stanley (MS) said on Aug. 3 that while the spill is a “significant shock to the regional economy,” there will be “essentially no impact” on U.S. economic input this year or next.

That the Gulf is recovering does not mean all is well. It turns out that the disaster that transfixed the nation isn’t the biggest threat to the Gulf’s health. Environmental scientists point to more serious and persistent (albeit less telegenic) threats, including the continued loss of wetlands, the impact of global climate change, and the supercharging of the Gulf with fertilizer that flows down the Mississippi River from Midwestern farms. According to Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at the Gulf-front Corpus Christi campus of Texas A&M University: “The spill is minor compared to those threats.” It’s as if a gunshot victim recovered from his wound, then had to battle metastatic cancer.

The patient has a fighting chance. Thanks to favorable winds and human intervention, little oil from the BP spill reached the estuaries where it can do serious damage. The light, sweet crude that stayed at sea is being disposed of rapidly by bacteria that have evolved to feed off the oil and methane that naturally seep from the seafloor. Roger Sassen, an adjunct professor of geology and geophysics at Texas A&M, goes so far as to say that “in a year or two we can forget this ever happened.” Argues Sassen: “The fact that the Mississippi is the drainage ditch for the fertilizers and nasty agricultural chemicals of the entire central U.S. is much worse than this transient spill.”

Even experts who are less sanguine see the oil spill as an added burden rather than a knockout blow. Jane Lubchenco, the marine ecologist who heads NOAA, says that the Gulf’s waters and coasts “have been undergoing a series of changes over the years that have progressively compromised the health of more and more of the system.” Speaking to reporters by phone on Aug. 10 while traveling in the region, she added: “Each of these changes doesn’t happen in isolation. This spill interacts with and is on top of the other changes in the Gulf.”

The Gulf’s long-term nemeses can’t be capped like a runaway oil well. Although slower-acting, they will have profound economic as well as environmental impacts, and responsibility for them can’t be easily assigned. The Iowa corn farmer whose excessive use of fertilizer contributes to choking off oxygen in the gulf is harder to blame than, say, Tony Hayward, BP’s (BP) outgoing chief executive.

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