Tags: | bp | oil | spill | gulf | global | warming

BP Aftermath Fuels Skepticism Over Global Warming Impact

Saturday, 21 Aug 2010 06:47 PM

By David A. Patten

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President Barack Obama called it "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."

Experts warned the plume of BP oil would create a "dead zone," killing all marine life in its path. 

Some researchers even predicted that methane gas bubbling up from the sea floor would accelerate global warming.

Today, about five weeks after the flow of oil from the well was stopped, the doomsday scenarios associated with the Deepwater Horizon blowout all appear less and less likely with each passing day – despite the staggering 4.1 million barrels of oil that were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, it will be some time before the ultimate impact of the BP oil spill is fully understood. But many conservative climate specialists are already pointing to the spill's aftermath, suggesting it shows that the Earth is far more resilient and adaptable than most experts recognize.

Indeed, they see the spill aftermath as a case study indicating the drastic climate-change scenarios, such as those presented in former Vice President Al Gore's film “Inconvenient Truth,” are probably way overblown. 

"Global warming is one prediction of doom after another," Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, tells Newsmax. "You know, we're all going to get malaria, or there will be hurricanes and tornadoes everywhere, or sea levels will rise drastically in a short period of time. It's just one claim of doom right around the corner after another."

The largest oil spill in U.S. history hasn't brought environmental Armageddon. So perhaps fears about global warming have been overblown as well, the thinking goes.

Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst specializing in energy and the environment at The Heritage Foundation, says dire gloom-and-doom predictions rarely pan out.

"There's no consistency over time, and then certainly we see the exaggerations," he says of exaggerated claims of climate impacts. "The same is true of the oil spill, and I think in both cases you can say that the spill and global warming were both being advanced to push a pre-existing agenda, an anti-energy agenda."

Ebell and Lieberman agree that human behavior can have serious consequences for the environment. But they say the Earth's robust, highly complex ability to adapt is much greater than generally recognized by climate-change activists.

"I'm not of the view that mankind can't cause damage," Lieberman says. "We certainly can. But we just can't conclude that everything that happens automatically is a crisis, and every perturbation will cause some delicate balance to spin out of control. And the reality with oil spills we've seen in the past, things do recover.”

The anecdotal evidence along the Gulf Coast wetlands suggest Lieberman's right. Already, green shoots of new marsh grass are springing up along Louisiana's wetlands.

In July, the Food and Drug Administration endorsed a decision by Louisiana fishery officials to reopen some 2,400 square miles of Gulf waters to commercial fishing and shrimping. Despite the heavy use of dispersants, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said tests showed "extremely low" contaminants in Gulf sea life. Traces of oil have been found in some crab larvae, worrying scientists that toxins could work their way up the food chain. But other biologists say fish will eliminate oil residue naturally, so that it won't become a problem.

Irving Mendelssohn, a coastal-plant ecologist at Louisiana State University, told The Associated Press: "My gut feeling, based on what I have seen … I doubt that the impact on the wetlands is going to create a significant problem for our coastal fisheries."

In fact, contrary to the predictions of vast underwater plumes, federal officials say that less than a quarter of the oil massive spill remains in the water.

"It was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained," White House energy adviser Carol Browner declared on the “Today” show. "Mother Nature did her part."

That finding has proved to be highly controversial, however. Three new reports issued in mid-August found that 70 percent to 79 percent of the oil that flowed into the Gulf is still out there somewhere, tainting the ecosystem.

"We just don't know where it is and we don't know what impact it's having on the bottom," says University of Georgia marine science professor Samantha Joye.

Ebell sees another parallel between the BP spill and global warming: The high costs associated with the government's response.

"The economic damage of the response is so much larger than the economic damage of the disaster," Ebell tells Newsmax. "It's many, many times the size, potentially. … You certainly see this in global warming, where the medicine is so much worse than the disease.

"There's simply no point in putting the world on an energy starvation diet, when the benefits are far outweighed by the economic damage that's done by reducing emissions," added Ebell.

Of course, experts who support regulating greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming say doing nothing about carbon emissions will ultimately cost much more.

William J. Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution and author of “Fast Forward: Ethics and Policy in the Age of Global Warming,” tells Newsmax that even the middle-of-the road predictions of how global warming would impact the planet are horrific.

"I'm far less worried about the Earth responding, than I am about human societies' ability to adapt to the kind of temperatures that are projected in the middle scenarios, let alone the worst-case scenarios," Antholis says. "The middle scenarios suggest a speed of warming that humans have never experienced before. Our ability to adapt to those kinds of changes is really what's in question."

Antholis admits there are plenty of unknowns about climate change, just as there are still plenty of unknowns about what the massive release of crude into the Gulf ultimately will do.

But doing nothing in the face of that uncertainty, he says, would be a bigger mistake.

"If four out of five scientists are telling us that the modest scenarios are quite likely to happen, I think that taking modest preventive costs now is worth doing," he says.

A quite different view comes from Arthur B. Robinson, a chemistry professor and co-founder of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine.

Robinson is a tireless promoter of the Global Warming Petition Project. He has helped collect more than 31,000 signatures from American scientists who are opposed to the view that greenhouse gases will have catastrophic consequences. And Robinson says the outcome of the BP oil spill so far shouldn't surprise anyone.

"We know already the process by which oil is dispersed and removed from the ocean," says Robinson. "It was obvious all along that providing the leak was stopped, the damage was minimal and would go away in a hurry. This is well known, the processes that disperse and get rid of oil leakage.

"There's vast oil leakage under the ocean all over the world all the time. Of course in this case, when you have a lot leaking at one place at one time, the natural processes don't have time to work before it gets to the beaches and oils some birds and so forth.

"These processes don't happen instantly," Robinson says. "If you put too much out at one place, of course you get some oil damage. But you still knew that before long natural processes would remove what was spilled, and if they got it plugged why this is what would happen. I think anybody who really knew their subject knew that was exactly what was going to happen."

Like Ebell, Robinson sees the ecological cure as worse than the original disease.

He says most of the economic damage from the spill stems from "a vast PR campaign by the media and the politicians to blow it way out of proportion, and that of course shut down the tourist industry down there and did a lot more damage."

What will be the final tally of economic and environmental damage from the BP spill? No one knows. In fact Roger Helm, a senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, recently described the spill to the AP as "just a giant experiment going on, and we're trying to understand scientifically what this means."

Although massive oil spills have happened before, but nothing on the scale of Deepwater Horizon.

The second-largest spill ever in the United States, the Exxon Valdez, involved up to 750,000 barrels of crude. The oil spilled into the cold, pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, and was slow to dissipate. It killed hundreds of harbor seals and thousands of seabirds.

The third-largest spill occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969. It also involved a rig blow out. Up to 100,000 barrels of oil spewed out sliming California's beaches. The resultant public furor was so strong, it helped give birth to major environmental legislation.

Dana Wetzel, a chemist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, recently told the Senate that to assume the consequences of the BP oil spill will just go away is "absolutely wrong." Everything from coral reefs to whale sharks could be affected for a long time to come, the chemist said.

Lieberman acknowledges that the BP spill will have "lingering effects." Just Thursday, for example, researchers discovered an invisible, 22-mile-long "mist" of underwater oil. Scientists say the plume appears to be breaking down very slowly.

In the end, however, Lieberman is confident that the impact of the BP spill won't even come close to living up to the hype.

And he cites the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 as examples. 

"Both of those had lingering effects, I don't mean to imply otherwise," Lieberman says. "But in neither case were those effects nearly as bad as the worst-case predictions at the time."





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