the observatory

“Missing” the Point

Absence of evident oil is not evidence of absent oil
August 2, 2010

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.

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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.

“I think we all need to understand that we, at least in the history of this country, we’ve never put this much oil into the water. And we need to take this very seriously,” he said.

[Update, 8/3: On Tuesday, the Times reported that federal scientists and engineers “believe that the current estimates are accurate to within 10 percent. They also reported that of the roughly 4.9 million barrels that had been released from the well, about 800,000 had been captured by BP’s containment efforts. That leaves over four million barrels that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20 to July 15.”]

While the Times should be commended for delivering a more nuanced account of the situation than the AFP or BBC, however, its article also could have done more to emphasize the lingering threat of oil. The top half of the story is devoted to a discussion of the “good news” that oil on the surface of the Gulf is dissipating quickly. But a quote in which Jane Lubchenco, the head of that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stresses that “less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface … or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” probably should have run higher than the fourteenth paragraph.

“We are extremely concerned about the short-term and long-term impacts of the gulf ecosystem,” Lubchenco said.

A shorter article in The Washington Post on Tuesday deserves credit for highlighting that concern immediately after the disclosure that the surface slick has receded. And a front-page story that it ran on Thursday is commendable for describing the oil as “unaccounted for” rather than “vanished” (the Times’s term). Yet the latter article loses points for leading with the suggestion that former BP CEO Tony Hayward was right when he said back in May that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean” and the that the amount of oil was small by comparison. After all, eight paragraphs down Lubchenco makes it clear that diluted does not mean benign.

That point was also picked up by the Los Angeles Times, which had one of the best ledes (buried on page twelve, unfortunately), accentuating the fact that:

Even though significantly less crude is now floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, federal officials warned Tuesday that the region could still suffer long-term negative impacts from the spill, particularly from oil beneath the water’s surface.

Which isn’t to say that reporters should ignore signs of recovery or trump up negative impacts where they don’t exist, but the media must avoid falling into the “mission-accomplished” trap until government, industry, and independent scientists have collected more data. Avoiding alarmism on one hand and complacency on the other is a difficult job, however. Take a controversial report that Michael Grunwald penned for Time magazine’s Web site on Thursday, arguing that “while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger [of the spill] is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago – it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage.”

Grunwald argues that the media have an “obvious incentive to accentuate the negative in the Gulf … because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines.” That may be true to a certain extent, but, as Mother Jones’s Kate Sheppard fairly points out, “if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either.”

Indeed, Grunwald’s piece sparked a bit of disagreement at Time, where his colleague, Bryan Walsh, felt compelled to offer this response:

I think it’s far too early to declare the oil spill a bust… The truth is we know very little about what the release of tens of millions of gallons of oil underwater will do to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf. Add in the application of some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have never been used—and were never meant to be used—in such vast quantities…

Grunwald is taking a land-centric view of the spill—as long as the oil doesn’t show up on the beach, it’s probably not doing much damage. But that’s far from clear today, just a little over 100 days from the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon.

To be fair, Grunwald doesn’t seem be “declaring victory” to the extent that Sheppard and Walsh imply, but in his effort to discourage alarmism definitely risks encouraging complacency. As The New York Times pointed out in an excellent survey of the long-term impacts oil spills in four other regions of globe, “Only 20 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that oil spills did almost all their damage in the first weeks, as fresh oil loaded with toxic substances hit wildlife and marsh grasses, washed onto beaches and killed fish and turtles in the deep sea.” But “hidden damage can last for years.”

The Times was careful to stress that “scientists … say the picture in the gulf is far from hopeless.” More journalists should emphasize that important fact, and Grunwald tried. But rather than complain about “overblown eco-fears,” he should have taken a cue from two recent articles from Reuters and The Washington Post, which highlighted the resiliency of marsh grasses and their importance to wetlands recovery without suggesting that we have nothing to worry about.

Indeed, until we can account for where all of the spill oil has gone, what was true at the beginning of the spill has never been more important: what is out of sight should never be out of mind. The crude on the surface may be “missing,” but to leave it at that misses the point.

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