Last week, the news media was awash with stories giving readers the impression that the Gulf of Mexico is no longer awash with oil. While the slick on the surface seems to be receding quickly, many of these reports have, unfortunately, failed to stress that the absence of evident oil is not necessarily evidence of absent oil.
[Update, 8/4: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday that about 74 percent of the spilled oil has been dealt with by capture, skimming, burning, evaporation, dissolution and dispersion. The remainder is onshore, still in the water, or buried at the bottom of the Gulf. In a front-page story published before the official announcement, The New York Times reported that the government was “expected” to say that the uncollected oil is “so diluted that it does not seem to pose much additional risk of harm.”
Well, what the government actually said was, “Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil still in the water column or that our beaches and marshes aren’t still at risk.” BBC News reported that, speaking Tuesday, the government’s oil-spill response coordinator, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, “welcomed reports the seal was working, but warned against ‘premature celebration,’ adding there was still much clear-up work to do.” The Times should take that warning to heart. After all, if 26 percent of the total oil spilled is still out there, that’s roughly 1,225,000 barrels (51,450,000 gallons) according to the latest estimate, or more than 4.5-times the amount the Exxon Valdez dumped in the Prince William Sound.]
On Tuesday, federal authorities announced that oil slicks on surface waters were rapidly disappearing, and that they weren’t sure where the millions of gallons of crude that spilled into the Gulf have gone [Update, 8/3: According to the latest estimate by federal scientists, announced Monday, the Macondo well actually spilled roughly 5 million barrels—at 42 gallons per barrel—into the Gulf, making it by far the world’s largest accidental spill in marine waters]. Outlets such as Agence France-Presse (AFP) and the BBC quoted retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the U.S. government’s response to the spill (which lasted for eighty-six days until BP capped its leaking well two weeks ago), saying, “What we’re trying to figure out is where is all the oil and what can we do about it.”
Those reports angered scientists and journalists alike, who say that stories about “missing” oil are missing the point. The New Orleans Times Picayune attempted to set the record straight on Thursday with an excellent article pointing out that:
Charter captain Mike Frenette [who runs a fishing boat that has been helping with the cleanup] has been wondering whether the news media are living in a parallel universe. The Internet and mainstream media this week are filled with reports that the BP oil disaster is over, that the Gulf is now devoid of the slicks and sheen, and the marshes are no longer being bathed in crude.
That’s not what he and his crew saw at the mouth of the Mississippi River and along the river’s delta this week…
Scientists and oil spill experts agree with Frenette. They say the Gulf might look cleaner on the surface right now, but there is probably hundreds of millions of gallons of BP’s oil in tiny, hard-to-see droplets below the surface. And slicks like the one Frenette saw this week will still be floating to the surface for weeks and months to come.
Mother Jones’s Mac McClelland tore into the AFP, in particular. After reading its report, she sent text messages to a Bloomberg reporter on Grand Isle and a member of American Bird Association on Isle Grand Terre, asking how things looked from there. Both replied that globs of crude were readily apparent, and McClelland criticized the media for “whitewashing” the story:
If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let’s hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, “What we’re trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it,” can locate some more with the staff and craft of the United States Coast Guard at his disposal.
McClelland’s ire is understandable, but any misimpression about how the threat to the Gulf has now passed seems, in this case, due more to the media’s reporting than to Allen himself. On Wednesday, for instance, a front-page article in The New York Times ran a quote from Allen that the AFP and BBC should have included as well.