People in the Gulf Want Reliable Answers, Not PR

Over the weekend, the press featured photos of President Obama and his family enjoying Panama City Beach, Florida. Thankfully, these beaches were spared the worst of the oil spill, and that community has remained relatively unscathed.  

Images of pristine beaches fit nicely into the storyline that is dominating the news right now—the spill wasn’t that bad, it hasn’t done that much damage to fish, and it is time to put it all behind us.

Having seen the oil-coated marshlands of South Louisiana for myself, I don’t agree with this formulation. But I do have a pretty good idea of what is fueling it.

Two weeks ago, the White House presented a very rosy picture of the spill--far rosier than the science supports—and ever since then, we have been hearing reports that the disaster is over.

This rosy tone has to go. It is premature to declare the ‘game over’ when we are only in the third inning.  Observations from previous oil spills tells us that it can take many months to determine the final fate of the oil and many years for some of the oil to be processed by the environment.

The government’s own report—called an oil budget—revealed that one-half of the oil may remain in the environment (a recent analysis argues that an even higher proportion of the spilled oil remains).  this break down). Even if the government’s analysis is correct, that is over 100 million gallons of oil—the equivalent of nine Exxon Valdez-sized oil spills.

Meanwhile, the fate of this oil remains unknown.       

Most oil budgets completed after spills do a full accounting of the oil. They estimate what fraction of oil remains in the salt marshes or the bottom of the ocean or the surface waters.

This oil budget didn’t include that information.  Yet until we know where the oil is, we don’t know the extent of the damage it is doing. Oil stuck in areas in the salt marshes, for instance, is among the hardest to clean up, whereas oil in waters rich in oxygen will eventually be broken down by microbes.

Instead of rushing the publication of the oil budget, the administration could have waited until it had more information.

During the rollout of the report, the administration seemed to dismiss the 24 percent of the oil that had been dispersed, implying that it was gone and no longer posed a risk to the Gulf.  But dispersed is not the same as disappeared oil. We need to measure the measure the rates of biodegradation in the dispersed oil to know how much of this faction remains in the Gulf.

Until we have some of these answers, we can’t sweep the 24 percent of dispersed oil into the clean column just yet.

Not when important outstanding questions remain around the impacts of the chemical dispersants.  We do not yet know if using the dispersants to break the oil down into tiny droplets made it easier to be taken up into the food chain.  Nor do we know whether the dispersants themselves accumulate in the tissue of fish.

With questions like these still lingering, I can understand why many Gulf fishermen oppose the lifting of fishing bans so soon. After all, they are the ones who will pay dearly if consumers lose faith in Gulf seafood as a result of inadequate testing.

Today, NRDC and almost two dozen Gulf Coast groups called on the FDA and NOAA to strengthen the current protocols and data relied on to determine whether seafood is safe for consumption and when to re-open areas for fishing. (Read about my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon’s commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Gulf fish safety here.)

I can understand the administration’s inclination to offer Americans good news. I would love to be able to tell the fishermen I met in Louisiana that fishing is safe and their livelihoods will be restored.

But I would hate to give them false promises. I want to give them facts. And that is what the administration must do right now.

It’s the government’s responsibility to conduct a comprehensive assessment of this disaster so we can understand what BP owes the Gulf and the American people. But it has to do it in a careful, thoughtful way, and it has to collect answers to the many outstanding questions.

It can’t rely on one hastily conducted oil budget any more than we can rely on one photograph of a clean sandy beach in Florida. We need the whole picture instead.