In Context, BP Oil Spill 'Isn't The Apocalypse'

Ken Ringle points out, in a commentary in the Nieman Watchdog, that very little oil has hit shore, and that much of the oil could evaporate. Also, sea water may break up even more of the spill. The leak is a calamity, he agrees, but may prove to be far less of a disaster than expected.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

It has been nearly three weeks since an explosion destroyed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. As hundreds and thousands of gallons continue to leak into the Gulf, businesses, politicians and environmentalists fear the worst. They're fighting to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

But former Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle argues that while the leak is a calamity, the spill may take care of itself. He covered a similar disaster off the island of Tobago in 1979 where two fully-loaded super tankers crashed. And he joins us in a moment.

If you have helped clean up an oil spill, tell us about your experience. Or if you have questions, call us 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now from his home here in Washington D.C. is Ken Ringle. He was the political and environmental reporter for much of his career at The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KEN RINGLE (Contributing Columnist, Nieman Watchdog): Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So the Tobago spill was expected to be a catastrophe for the environment but that never happened. What lessons did you learn covering that?

Mr. RINGLE: Well, first of all, just let me correct you. One thing, I don't believe that the spill, the BP oil spill will take care of itself.

LUDDEN: Okay.

Mr. RINGLE: I think it's going to be, you know, dangerous and costly and everything else. But there are factors operating that are going to make it much less than I think most people have assumed.

LUDDEN: And so how do you come to that? Tell us about your experience covering the Tobago spill.

Mr. RINGLE: Well, the Tobago spill is interesting, and it's surprising that it's not cited in the articles about the BP oil spill because the Tobago spill was the third largest in history. It was in July 1979. I was working at The Post at the time and I had done a number of series about oil tankers and ships and oil. And I was - we chartered a plane to go down there because these two very large super tankers collided. It was the only collision of fully loaded super tankers to my knowledge. And together they had an immense amount of oil, enough for about one-fifth the daily consumption of the United States. And when they collided, it was widely assumed by everyone, including me, that this would be the environmental disaster of all time.

LUDDEN: And then what happened?

Mr. RINGLE: Well, there was a calamity. Twenty-seven people died, one ship exploded and ultimately sank. And there was a hundred-mile long oil slick. But it disappeared. And I didn't want to believe that this could happen. All of us reporters down there were kind of dumbfounded but we flew over the slick and saw this and it turned out that a number of factors were operating down there. Then...

LUDDEN: Is the - can I just - this disappeared, what, in a number of days? Weeks?

Mr. RINGLE: In a number of days.

LUDDEN: Where did it go?

Mr. RINGLE: Well, first of all, let me explain a couple of facts. The problem with an oil spill is not just the amount of oil that's spilt. It's where it's spilt. And it's the kind of oil that's spilt.

In the case of the Trinidad and Tobago spill, it was in the tropics, it was in July. It was - there was a lot of sun. And the water was very warm. The air was very warm. The trade winds were blowing. And about 50 percent of the oil spill simply evaporated, and the rest was largely consumed by oil-eating microbes, which attack oil because it's a natural substance.

And light Arabian crude, which was cargo of these ships, is the most volatile and the most unstable of all crude oil pumped from the earth, so more of that evaporates. Now that evaporation is not an entirely harmless process. I mean, it's greenhouse houses and so forth that go off. But it leaves a lot less there to coat birds.

The heaviest parts of the oil, paraffins and asphalt and things like that, become tar balls and they sink to the bottom of the oceans, which is what happened there. But by the time the oil spill was stretching toward Granada, one of the experts that I interviewed estimated that it was such a thin sheen, it was about what your wife finds in the sink when she's washed the salad bowl, he said.

LUDDEN: Huh.

Mr. RINGLE: And that was essentially what happened.

LUDDEN: Now, what I hear you say, though, is it happened in July, it was hot. There was a lot of sun, a certain kind of crude. It sounds like maybe that was a very difficult scenario from, say, the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska?

Mr. RINGLE: Very different. You ask the same - experts I talked to said if this same cargo had been a tarry viscous kind of oil that's pumped out of the north slope of Alaska, and if it had happened in the Arctic, that same oil would be, would have been with us for a century. So it's very much a question of the environmental conditions and the type of oil.

LUDDEN: We have someone on the line who actually worked on the Valdez oil spill. Jay is in Austin, Texas. Hi Jay.

JAY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good, what your experience there?

JAY: Well, I went up to Alaska hoping to work actually on the oil spill with my siblings, and we were actually not allowed to work on the oil spill. After about three days we were terminated because of our residency. We weren't Alaska citizens. But I worked on the spill for about three days with animal rescue. I worked on cleaning animals. And my experience with the whole thing is that there was nothing good that came from this aside from the fact that there was a boost to the local economy with cleanup crews.

LUDDEN: Do you what do you make of the fact that we're hearing that another spill in Tobago, they're kind of - a lot of it just, you know, evaporated and was eaten up by microbes in the ocean?

JAY: Well, that certainly is not the case in Prince William Sound. There are still long-lasting effects of Exxon Valdez oil spill. And there is nothing in now, this is my opinion - but there is nothing that can be done to repair the damage that was done in Prince William Sound.

In subsequent years I actually worked as a biology intern with Alaska Department of Fish and Game, working on the pink salmon population for the two years after my first summer, during 1989. And the closures - devastating - had devastating effects on the fishing industry up there. There are still thousands of people that still haven't been reimbursed for the wages lost that summer, me being one of them.

LUDDEN: Sorry about that, Jay, but thank you for calling.

Ken Ringle, we also have an email. Note of skepticism here. William in Columbus, Georgia writes: You say is not an environmental disaster. I'm not sure we actually said that. But he says there are three inch of - three-inch balls of gooey tar rolling up on the beach in front of my house in Fort Morgan, Alabama.

So Ken Ringle, for people who are looking at this, you know, what do you say to them in terms of some other environmental factors...

Mr. RINGLE: First of all, first of all, let me say this is a calamity, it is a disaster. It's going to be costly, there are going to be effects. I didn't say it wasn't. But just let me put it in perspective. Your caller, who talked about the Exxon Valdez, that spilt 270,000 barrels of oil - 270,000, okay?

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RINGLE: The spill in Tobago spilt two million barrels, nearly 10 times that. And the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Gulf of Campeche, this is in the Gulf of Mexico, really, which happened a month after the spill of Trinidad, that was a blowout very, very similar to the BP oil blowout. That spilled one and a half million barrels more than the one in Tobago - 3.4 million barrels with essentially minimal effects. No, I don't say there weren't tar balls occasionally on some beaches in Texas. I don't say that there weren't. There's someone wrote in that there were...

LUDDEN: Tar balls, yes.

Mr. RINGLE: ...a thousand birds that got covered with oil, and I'm sure that's true. But it took eight months to cap that oil in Mexico, eight months. So it's 30 years ago, when undersea technology was considerably less that it is now. But this spill will be capped.

LUDDEN: Eight months, that is incredible. And when your are reporting this, I mean, what were the scientists - and people realized what had happened, I mean was anyone predicting that that would happen or did it surprise even the experts, the environmentalists? Did they have to kind of explain after the fact? What did you hear?

Mr. RINGLE: You mean the one in Trinidad?

LUDDEN: Yes.

Mr. RINGLE: Well, everyone was trying to nobody came. Everyone thought that it would be some sort of disaster. When the spill seemed to be dissipating, all the experts pulled their heads together and say how could this be, and then they finally realize what it was. And they pointed out what was going on.

But the same people who told me that said, look, if this had happened in the Arctic, if it happened in the Antarctic, this stuff would be with us for a century. So where we are where the BP spill I think is somewhere halfway between the Trinidad spill and the Exxon Valdez.

LUDDEN: Can I read you an email from Tim in Iowa, writes in: I'm sure anyone understands too well the difference between an oil spill on the surface and an oil jet shooting through nearly a mile of water. What makes it to the surface is only a small fraction of what's being ejected from the well. I have a feeling the gulf is going to be dealing with the effects of this spill for a minimum of multiple decades as oil moves through the water column.

Mr. RINGLE: Well, there's a certain amount of that and I I'm at pains not to think anybody assumes that I am saying that I minimize this thing. There will be effects, but you've got to remember that oil has been pumped from the Gulf for more than 50 years. It's been pumped over the wetlands of Louisiana. It's been pumped through the wetlands in Louisiana and it's been spilled on the wetlands of Louisiana, in smaller amounts, obviously. But I have a home down there. I mean, I know the Louisiana marshes very, very, very well and I care very much about them. And the seriousness of this is unquestionably great, but there are also processes at work in the natural environment about which I think most people are ignorant. And these things are breaking down this spill as we speak. And the wider it gets and the more it spreads out, the more of it evaporates and the more little bugs eat at it.

Now, even after the bugs eat at it and some of it sinks to the bottom, obviously there'll be some effects. But it won't be as bad as if all of the crude undiluted, unattacked, unevaporated had hit all of the wetlands.

LUDDEN: All right. We're talking with Ken Ringel about the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Richard(ph) has called in from - is that right, Clam Gulch, Alaska?

RICHARD (Caller): Clam Gulch, Alaska, yes.

LUDDEN: How are you? Welcome to the show.

RICHARD: Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be on the show. I listen to a lot. In the process of the cleanup Valdez spill - I worked on two islands out of the mouth of Prince William Sound. I worked on Latouche and I worked on Green Island. I worked for a company that innovated a process for washing beaches. And we use cement booms and a hot oil torch. Basically we pump water from the Sound, heated it up, ran it through a boom and washed oil. We were doing excellent. It was actually working.

The problem became - we were - we did too good. There wasn't any way to pick up the oil. It only had like two skimmers in the whole - three skimmers in the whole task force. It became a logistical nightmare. I can tell you that that heavy oil, besides being, of course, sticky and thick on the beaches way out at the mouth of Prince William Sound, not only was it everywhere and messy, it was impossible to move because of the heaviness and the cold water. Now, when the process was - when we were in the process of cleaning, even though it was working on a smaller scale than we would like to have seen, it was still working.

And then (unintelligible) threw a monkey wrench into the works, turned everything upside down, because from our perspective it appeared we were doing too good, and a lot of people were laid off very - about halfway through the spill and they just kind of threw money at it and didn't do any real work. But it became a political issue (technical difficulties) to begin with, we were working with the tides, waiting for the tides to - to go to high tide and then we'd follow the tide out. Thus, we were able to move oil with the tides and they flipped everything upside down. What I'm trying to - my point is here that I don't - you know, fortunately, in the warm water down there, they might have, you know, be able to get more of it to evaporate like the gentleman was saying.

I really pray for those people that live around down there. But the political and - the oil companies and the political side of that overtook the logic and the reasoning. And I really hope that that doesn't happen. I was out there for six weeks. I have tons of pictures. And I really hope that when a system is put into place that will allow cleanup and allow the citizenry to become involved, I really hope that will happen. I really hope that BP and other agencies, Coast Guard and whatnot, will allow the citizenry to mass up and, you know, give them the money to get the booms and bring in the skimmers and bring in the technology. There are a lot of people down there that work in the oil fields and whatnot that actually understand what to do.

LUDDEN: All right. Richard, I think we're going to let you go, but we thank you for your call.

Ken Ringle, lots of debate about what to do, and they've been already through several attempts to clean up in the Gulf of Mexico. Other lessons learned from your Tobago experience? What do you make of the efforts that been made so far off Louisiana?

Mr. RINGLE: Well, I think they've been pretty good so far. The thing to remember is, is this - it'll be till May 18, I think, before this spill gets to 100,000 pounds. It'll take almost a year of this spill, operating at its present volume before it gets anywhere near the size of the Tobago spill. But they have hired a great many shrimp boats and watermen along the Louisiana coast to ameliorate these things with booms and so forth. And there's a tremendous lot of attention going on all along the various beaches and coasts and so forth.

LUDDEN: All right. We need to leave it there. But thank you so much for your time.

Mr. RINGLE: Right.

LUDDEN: Ken Ringle covered politics and the environment for much of his reporting career at the Washington Post and still contributes his commentary. "A Little Context for the BP Oil Spill" was on Nieman Watchdog site May 5th. He joined us from his home here in Washington

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: