Risky Business

Times jumps the gun, irresponsibly dismisses threat of remaining oil

On Monday, I posted a story complaining that, following federal authorities’ announcement that the oil slicks on surface waters were rapidly disappearing, the media failed to stress that the absence of evident oil is not necessarily evidence of absent oil. I just posted an important update to that column, which is worth pulling out into a new post:

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.

Again, the government said that the remaining quarter of leaked oil poses real risks, and while the Times’s article subtly acknowledges that, it’s not the dominant frame established in the lead and nutgraph.

The risks are further described in the full report (pdf) released by NOAA on Wednesday. “Chemical dispersants were applied at the surface and below the surface; therefore, the chemically dispersed oil ended up both deep in the water column and just below the surface. Dispersion increases the likelihood that the oil will be biodegraded, both in the water column and at the surface. Until it is biodegraded, naturally or chemically dispersed oil, even in dilute amounts, can be toxic to vulnerable species,” the report says. It adds:

Even though the threat to shorelines, fish and wildlife, and ecosystems has decreased since the capping of the BP wellhead, federal scientists remain extremely concerned about the impact of the spill to the Gulf ecosystem. Fully understanding the impacts of this spill on wildlife, habitats, and natural resources in the Gulf region will take time and continued monitoring and research.

The Times’s decision to jump the gun and report an apparent lack of risk before seeing the actual report was grossly irresponsible. [Correction, 6:00 p.m.: Earlier today, I got an e-mail from the environment editor at the Times, Erica Goode, who tells me that the Times did, in fact, have an advanced copy of Wednesday’s report before the paper went to press. So I, too, am guilty of jumping the gun here, and regret that error.

I asked Goode why, given the report in its possession, the Times had expected federal officials to say that the lingering oil doesn’t pose much additional risk of harm. Here is her response: “The lede of the story was not offering a direct quote from the report — it was summarizing what the whole report said and what its implications were (in that sense, announce may not have been the best word). Note that the piece included many caveats — including the fourth graf, which quotes Lubchenco saying that the government remains ‘concerned about the ecological damage that has already occurred and the potential for more.’

“Whatever one thinks about the report (and some outside scientists disagree with its assessment, as we will report tomorrow), it attempts to quantify the amount of oil that is still there and what state that oil is in. The 26 percent that is still in the water or onshore, the report concludes, is biodegrading rapidly. The scientists who worked on the report say that this means it appears less likely that massive additional oil will come to shore or hang densely in the water column to do further damage. That is the idea that is reflected in the lede. This doesn’t say anything about the damage that the oil has already done or the potential for future damage to the food chain (as Justin Gillis points out in the story). In fact, two weeks ago Justin and Leslie Kaufman wrote an extensive front-page piece describing in great detail the longterm damage that even a small oil spill can do.”

That’s a reasonable reply, and I hope for the best, too, but I still think the Times went a bit too far in reading between the lines. I’m not saying that federal scientists think the lingering oil will wreak havoc, but in every quote I’ve seen from Lubchenco, Allen, and marine scientists, they say that they simply do not know what the risk is. Isn’t it better to just leave it at that unless they say (explicitly) otherwise?]

The Times’s reporting is already fueling widespread misunderstanding. Indeed, CBS News, Bloomberg News, and New York Magazine have all cited Times while naively repeating its unsubstantiated assertion. Across the pond, the Telegraph did it, too, though it didn’t cite the Times directly.

Worse still, this is not the first time that Times has gotten ahead of itself on the front page and ended up making excuses for BP and the government. A mere thirteen days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded—when officials were still offering ludicrously low-ball estimates of the spill rate—the paper had the audacity to tell readers that, “No one, not even the oil industry’s most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident.”

Commendably, the Today show’s Matt Lauer pressed White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner on the question about the current risk from lingering oil on Wednesday morning. All she would say is that the oil will continue to breakdown and that she thinks that the recovery efforts had “turned an important corner” with the news that BP’s so-called “static kill” of the Macondo well was going well. And that news is good enough! The New York Times does not need to call this game before it’s over.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.