One would have to be heartless not to be moved by photos of pelicans, sea turtles and other Gulf of Mexico wildlife mired in oil muck. The story line — man interfering with nature and now paying a heavy price — is biblical in its imagery.
But is it scientific?
Oil is a common, natural presence in the environment, including in the Gulf of Mexico. A 2009 article in Environmental Science and Technology reported that the naturally occurring Coal Oil Point seep field off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. has leaked 150 to 200 barrels of oil into the Pacific every day for probably thousands of years. Yet marine organisms still prosper there.
In 1942, in less than a month, eight tankers were sunk by German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing 75,000 barrels — or nearly 2.3 million gallons — each. Not many years after those tankers went down, few traces of the oil remained, though the spill wasn’t cleaned up “quickly” by today’s standards.
This comes as no surprise; oil spill impacts largely dissipate in one to five years.
Less active currents and colder water temperatures made Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez spill, less “resilient” than the Gulf of Mexico. Still, since the “disaster,” more than half the key species have completely recovered and all but two of the rest are close to full recovery.
Ironically, some of the greatest damage was caused by Exxon’s panicked response. Exxon literally washed the rocks and beaches clean, harming clams and other organisms in the process.
The $2 billion Exxon spent on clean-up efforts may have been more public penance than sound environmental policy. With legal settlements, the company spent $3.5 billion. While some individuals and businesses were harmed, Alaska’s economy actually showed a small upward blip for at least a year after the spill.
If oil spills are less harmful to the environment and economy than conventionally believed, why does the public react with such horror? If it was due solely to the effects on wildlife, why isn’t there similar outrage about the 130 million birds killed in the U.S. each year colliding with high tension electric wires?
The difference is that oil spills cause the sudden death of large numbers of “God’s creatures” whose suffering is splashed across the media. We see a similar phenomenon in the intensive coverage of an airplane crash. The fact that 33,963 people died in automobile accidents last year hardly warrants a mention.
But there is another less-obvious reason for the public’s horror and shock: Unforeseen environmental upheavals such as large oil spills produce emotions closely associated with religious experiences.
Environmental historian William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin explains that modern environmentalism is really a new religion that offers “a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly.”
Like many Old Testament prophesies, oil spills easily appear as harsh environmental calamities by which God justly punishes us for sinfully tampering with his creation. Ted Turner, a longtime environmental advocate, recently suggested that the Gulf oil spill was a negative message from God.
Modern science and economics have given humans the power to play God with the world. But there is a common fear today that we may have overreached and signed a new pact with the devil. Science and economics may destroy us before they can save us.
Large oil spills, symbolically involving human beings tampering with primitive nature in search of more and more energy to power our modern economies, heighten such fears even among people who reject the Bible.
The reality is that we cannot avoid our basic dependence on oil and other energy sources. American energy policy must therefore be grounded in hard analysis of needs and circumstances, rather than surrogate religious experiences.
We don’t shut down the airlines after every crash; we should think the same way about drilling for oil and gas in complicated marine environments.
Robert Nelson is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland.