FIRST OFF, LET ME STATE that I am not a petro-geologist or a marine biologist or an expert of any kind on the effects of petroleum on the ocean's flora and fauna. For a while, based on my reading of newspaper reports, I was afraid no one else was either.
I don't want to understate the magnitude of the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico as this uncapped oil well will likely continue gushing for months. This is an unnatural disaster of substantial proportions (a government-estimated 20 million to 43 million gallons of crude, thus far). But I have reason to believe that most of the media, as they are wont to do, have exaggerated the disastrousness of this "unprecedented" spill..
Long story short: there is a precedent for this oil spill and the natural order is more robust than many seem to give credit. While the current undersea gusher is the worst oil spill in U.S. history, it is not yet the worst in the history of the Gulf of Mexico, according to a report by the Miami Herald's Nirvi Shah.
"Everybody keeps saying the spill in the Gulf is unprecedented,'' said geologist John Amos, founder of SkyTruth (SkyTruth.org), a nonprofit that investigates environmental issues using satellite images. "That is such [B.S.]. We had perfect precedence.''
Amos is referring to the largest spill in Gulf history which occurred on June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc 1 platform off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula exploded, releasing approximately 140 million gallons of oil.
Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the blowout in March 1980.
"To be honest, because of our ignorance, we thought everything was going to die," said Luis A. Soto, a Mexican deep-sea biologist who studied the spill's impact after the well was sealed.
First evaluations of the Mexican spill did find harsh effects on sea life. "I found shrimp with tumor formations in the tissue, and crabs without the pincers," Soto said. Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, said, "I measured 80 percent reduction in all combined species that were living in the intertidal zone."
But by the second year, scientists noticed how fast the marine environment was recovering, helped by naturally occurring microbes that ate the oil, degrading it.
"We were really surprised. . . . After two years, the conditions were really almost normal," said Mexican marine biologist Leonardo Lizarraga Partida.
Aquatic life along the Texas shoreline returned to normal within three years -- even as tar balls and tar mats remained along the beaches, sometimes covered by sand, according to Tunnell.
It is worth noting that that spill differed from the current one in that it was in relatively shallow (160 feet deep) waters and much of the oil stayed on the surface. Perhaps because of that, it broke down faster and became less toxic by the time it reached the Texas coast.
One reason that un-natural spills are not as catastrophic as we might think is that "natural spills" occur all the time. Natural oil that seeps from the seabed releases the equivalent of one to two supertankers (about 84 to 168 million gallons) of crude in the Gulf of Mexico each year, according to Tunnell.
"The good side of having all that seepage out there is that we've got a huge population of microbes, bacteria that feed on petroleum products in the water and on shore. So that helps the recovery time," said Tunnell.
Not to minimize the significance of the damage to Gulf fish, mammals and birds, to tourism or to the seafood industry, there is real hope that the Gulf will, once it is over, recover from this precedented oil spill.
Worldwide, we live in an oleic society, that is, one derived from oil. We cannot escape that fact. If all the petroleum in the world were to disappear overnight, the financial impact would make the current global recession look like a tea party (and I use that term in its genteel, lace doilies and crumpets sense).
Not to repeat myself, any who want to blame "Big Oil" for drilling for undersea oil need to remember the great philosopher Pogo’s admonition: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Gary D. Gaddy was the co-owner of a short-lived solar energy and energy conservation company in 1977.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday June 4, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy