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Shore birds are seen in the wetlands surrounding the harbor of Venice, Louisiana this month. Though oil-coated dolphin carcasses and sticky tar balls are washing up on the US Gulf Coast a year after the BP oil spill, the environmental impacts appear -- at least in the short term -- to be surprisingly limited.MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images) (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Shore birds are seen in the wetlands surrounding the harbor of Venice, Louisiana this month. Though oil-coated dolphin carcasses and sticky tar balls are washing up on the US Gulf Coast a year after the BP oil spill, the environmental impacts appear -- at least in the short term -- to be surprisingly limited.MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images) (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Margaret Wente

Can you handle the truth about the Gulf of Mexico? Add to ...

Here's some news you may not have heard: One year after the worst oil spill in history, the Gulf of Mexico is nearly back to normal.

That's right: Armageddon didn't happen. Instead of terrible harm to the biosphere, the Deepwater Horizon spill has caused only mild problems. In fact, because of the fishing bans imposed after the spill, there are more fish than ever. Shark and mackerel populations have exploded. "Red snapper are unbelievable right now," one fisherman said. "You could put a rock on the end a string and they'd bite it."

The economy is chugging along, too. The fear was that livelihoods and even entire communities were finished. But business is looking up - partly because of all the lawyers who flooded in to work on spill claims.

Yet, despite the good news, the coverage of the blowout's anniversary last week was almost unrelievedly grim. Not one story I read bothered to chronicle the Gulf's astonishing recovery. The lone exception was a brave CBC reporter who dared to say that things were looking pretty good. A wire story in the Toronto Star was far more typical. "You can't see or smell the oil, but scientists fear problems are hidden in marshes and the food web," the headline said.

In fact, most scientists believe the Gulf is in surprisingly good shape. When three dozen of them were asked to rate the current health of the Gulf's ecosystem on a 1-to-100 scale, they gave it an average grade of 68 - not bad, considering that, before the spill, they gave it a 71. "People are having a hard time accepting it. Me, too," says Ed Overton, a chemist at Louisiana State University. "There are things that are wrong. There is still oil out there. But it is not nearly as bad as I expected it would be a year later."

Carl Safina is a renowned marine ecologist whose new book, A Sea in Flames, is unsparing in its apportionment of blame for the disaster. He thinks our oil addiction will be the ruin of us because of global warming. But he also writes that the Deepwater Horizon spill didn't do much environmental harm. After the well was capped, the oil slick quickly shrank. The chemical dispersants didn't make the oil go away, but they speeded its natural decomposition. Photo oxidation and biodegradation - i.e., nature - did the rest. At the time, Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, was reviled for saying that the amount of oil leaked was "tiny" compared with the "very big ocean." But he turned out to be right.

Nor did the dispersants cause widespread marine deaths, as environmentalists had feared. This year, according to Kevin Anson, a biologist with the Alabama division of Marine Resources, the shrimp, crabs and fish appear to be developing normally. The only species really hurt was oysters. They were devastated, not by the oil, but by all the fresh water sent through the delta to keep the oil outside the marshes.

None of this excuses the blowout. Oil is a toxic, nasty substance, and nothing good happens when oil gets into water. The multibillion-dollar penalties imposed were richly deserved. And questions remain about the longer term effects on plankton, and on species such as the ridley sea turtle.

Still, in light of the facts, it's worth asking why we're so determined to cling to the narrative of catastrophe. I think it's because we saw the spill as a giant morality tale: evil versus good, rapacious oil interests versus the environment, greedy consumers (that's us) versus oil-soaked pelicans and the unspoiled natural world. The visuals were devastating, and the coverage was relentless. The media took turns hyping the disaster. They had a lot invested in this storyline and, when it took an unexpected happy turn, they couldn't handle it. They couldn't even see it.

Luckily for us, they were wrong. "Nature's resilience is truly magnificent," writes Carl Safina. And that's a good thing.

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