Ecology: Political Ooze


In February, 400,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of a ruptured British Petroleum tanker off the coast of Southern California. Rumor has it that most of that oil oozed honey-thick onto the shores of Newport Beach, staining the coast and threatening precious wildlife habitats. But in the hours after the spill, signs of a catastrophe were hard to find.

First, I had to squeeze past a dozen porcelain-white television trucks, whose massive satellite dishes were beaming news of the "disaster" worldwide. Then, far above the high-tide line, I dodged the crowds surrounding lawyers and politicians holding court. Up and down the beach, government workers dragged shiny hardwood podiums bearing state emblems, so there'd be no doubt who was speaking.

The bureaucrats and the barristers had a field day. One lawyer, representing sport fishermen, pledged to sue B.P. for $1 billion. State Attorney General John Van de Kamp and state Controller Gray Davis, both dressed in natty pullover sweaters, demanded tougher environmental legislation. Marian Bergeson, a Republican state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, slogged through the sand vowing to fight offshore oil drilling. Environmental groups blurted their rage to cameras and newspaper scribes alike. (Six days after the spill, they were seeking state disaster relief.)

Just past the politicians, television newsfolk (equipped with lights, cameras, mirrors, and gofers) set up surrogate studios in the soft sand. Phrases such as "black blobs," "frothy mousse," "sticky tar," "filmy fingers," and "gooey gunk" punctuated their apocalyptic reports.

Finally, I got a first-hand look at about 200 hard-hatted workers milling about on a fairly clean beach.

Scattered for a mile on either side of the Newport Beach pier, workers blotted up dime-to-quarter-sized freckles of crude with absorbent towels. Tweezers, it seems, would have worked just as well. "All I can find are little, itty-bitty dots of oil," complained one member of the crew.

Mingling with the hired help were local volunteers, genuflecting in the sand, snarling about the environmental "tragedy" that had spoiled their beaches.

"This morning the oil came ashore as a light foam, but now it's coming up in globs," moaned one volunteer as he sifted for specks of crude. "I've already cried a couple of times."

None of the professional cleanup workers grieved for the environment. Instead, many glowered at the reporters and tourists passing by. Finding the oil, they complained, was more difficult than cleaning it up.

My search for the masses of dead animals was also unfruitful. Around 100 birds (mostly grebes, cormorants, and scoters) died after getting coated with the oil. None of these species are threatened or endangered, wildlife experts say.

Ironically, one of the biggest threats to the birds was their saviors. According to state Department of Fish and Game officials, volunteers hastened the birds' demise by hovering too close to the surf, frightening the birds and keeping them from coming ashore.

It seems the oil killed no marine mammals. One sea lion washed up dead on the beach, but it was not killed by the spill. Biologists say California sea lions (approaching 200,000 animals coast-wide) are not endangered. Southern sea otters, which are listed as "threatened" and protected by federal law, do not normally inhabit areas affected by the spill.

"Overall," says Milton Love, a marine ichthyologist who toured the Newport Beach area after the spill, "local beaches will endure some short-term ramifications, but long-term effects will be undetectable. In fact, a very high percentage of the oil that has washed ashore will be nonexistent in a year. Little will be trapped in the ground. Bacteria will eat it quite fast, or it will evaporate."

Offshore, where the spill floated about in an undulating sheen, cleanup was remarkably rapid. Four days after the accident, only one-third of the oil remained. The rest had evaporated or been sucked up by 13 skimmers trolling the waters.

But to hear environmentalists tell it, this was a horrible disaster. "We're desecrating something very beautiful," one told the Los Angeles Times. "The ocean is beautiful and free, and now we're going to kill it."

If public reaction to the Newport Beach spill was overblown, the policy conclusions that some drew from it were ludicrous. Johnny Carson seemed to speak for many Californians when he told a "Tonight Show" audience, "I hope this puts an end to this offshore drilling nonsense."

But what does a tanker spill have to do with offshore drilling? While hauling oil is a sometimes dangerous undertaking, drilling almost never causes spills. In fact, there hasn't been a significant drilling or production-related accident on the Pacific coast since the infamous Union Oil blowout near Santa Barbara in 1969.

Furthermore, to stop domestic drilling would increase our dependence on foreign crude. More imported oil means more tankers, which in turn mean a greater risk of spills.

If transporting oil safely to ports and refineries is the riskiest part of getting it to our cars and home furnaces, that's where the most attention should be focused. For example, double-hulled tankers and pipeline technology need more scrutiny, as do vessel monitoring systems, spill containment techniques, and the important matter of who pays for pollution.

Curiously, however, Californians have opposed technology that reduces the chances of a spill as vigorously as they have opposed offshore drilling. In 1984, for example, Chevron investigated the idea of building a pipeline to carry crude from wells off Point Arguello (40 miles northwest of Santa Barbara) to Los Angeles refineries. The proposal would have reduced tanker traffic from the Santa Barbara Channel south to Los Angeles, and, consequently, the likelihood of spills along that route.

But three years later, after 73 government agencies and dozens of community groups (especially in Los Angeles) had taken shots at the pipeline plan, it decomposed into litigious mush. Turns out, folks didn't want spills, but they also didn't want pipelines running beneath their homes and streets.

Despite what some may think, we can't live risk-free lives. Though we should consider reasonable measures to reduce spills, we shouldn't be panicked by environmental alarmists. Oil transportation is less dangerous than they would have us believe. The Newport Beach spill, for example, was the first of its kind in Southern California in decades. Not bad, considering that 1,200 oil tankers dock at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors each year.

Michael Kronman is a field editor for National Fisherman magazine and a consultant to the California fishing industry.