How to think about oil spills — the perils of overreaction 

Environmentalists have been quick to call the BP/Deepwater spill the offshore drilling equivalent of Three Mile Island, the 1979 nuclear accident that put the last nail in the coffin of the already declining nuclear power industry. The comparison with Three Mile Island is ironically appropriate. As some environmentalists have come to regret, the limitation of nuclear power after 1979 resulted in the expansion of coal-fired electricity instead, but coal is now environmental enemy No. 1 because of its high greenhouse gas emissions. A halt to offshore drilling now would be equally ill-advised.

As with Three Mile Island, the hysteria of the media and the political class over the Deepwater spill is likely to lead to increased risk and adverse environmental tradeoffs. It is understandable that the Deep-water spill is generating such intense fury.

Even with the semi-successful effort to begin capturing some of the leaking oil, the Deepwater spill will probably persist until relief wells can be finished possibly in August. By then the Deepwater spill will likely have leaked over 200,000 tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 37,000 tons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound; the 1969 Santa Barbara spill (which was stopped in about 10 days) amounted to only 12,000 tons.

But the extraordinary nature of this platform spill — the first in this country in 40 years — is no excuse to take leave of reason, or avert our gaze from thinking seriously about risk tradeoffs. Right now the United States gets more than 1.6 million barrels of oil a day from the Gulf of Mexico, and if we curtail Gulf exploration and production, we shall have to make up the difference with more imported oil.

Even if the Deepwater Horizon spill lasts into the fall, it will still not even be the largest offshore spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That dubious achievement belongs to the Ixtoc 1, a Mexican platform near Yucatán that blew out in 1979 in circumstances similar to the Deepwater Horizon (the blowout preventer failed after a gas surge from the well). It took Mexico’s famously inept Pemex almost 10 months to stop the leak, by which time 460,000 tons of oil had leaked — still the largest accidental spill in world history.

The Ixtoc 1 spill started in June 1979. Oil began washing up on 125 miles of Texas coastline by early August. It is estimated that only 4,000 tons of oil made it to U.S. shores, which was about 1 percent of the total amount of oil spilled.

The ecological effects of the Ixtoc 1 disaster should be borne in mind when we hear claims that the Deepwater spill will inflict large and long-lasting effects. According to a 1981 study by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, about half of the Ixtoc 1 oil evaporated, and another 25 percent sank to the bottom of the ocean, much of it broken up by wave action and chemical dispersants.

On the other hand, the 5,800- square-mile area represented about 2.5 percent of Mexican Gulf Coast waters. Finally and most ironically, Hurricane Frederick struck the Texas coast in September 1979, and washed away 95 percent of the oil that had reached shoreline beaches and marshes. The current fears of the effects of tropical storms and hurricanes in the midst of the Deepwater spill might be misplaced.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to AEI’s Energy and Environment Outlook.

This article is excerpted from The Weekly Standard.

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