Rational Optimist Matt Ridley: Nature Often Resilient in Recovering From Oil Spills


Oil spills are bad, but in a column for the Times (London) Matt Ridley argues that science shows that the natural world often recovers from the damage of oil spills with alacrity. As evidence, Ridley cites some lessons from previous spills:

First, be careful not to do more harm than good. When the Torrey Canyon was wrecked off Cornwall in 1967, spilling 120,000 tonnes of oil, the British government not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of detergents, which were much more damaging to marine life than the oil itself, then bulldozed the oil and detergents into the sand on some beaches where it persisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the elements.

The mistake was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince William Sound. Thousands of volunteers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would otherwise have eaten the oil.

Speaking of microbes, do not underestimate nature's powers of recovery. After most big oil spills, scientists are pleasantly surprised by how quickly the oil disappears and the marine life reappears. This is true even in Alaska, where the sheltered waters, low temperatures and abundant wildlife conspired to make the slick damaging and persistent. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its website: `What scientists have found is that, despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient.' A scientist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that `Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico are just wild overreactions'.

When the Braer went aground off Shetland in 1993 and spilled 85,000 tonnes of oil, storms quickly dispersed the oil, so the effect on most of the local wildlife was barely measurable. As one scientific report drily noted, after running through a list of undetected effects on birds, shore life and seabed creatures, `five otters were found dead in the oil spill area. However, three of these were killed by vehicles, one was recovered before the oil could have reached it and the cause of mortality of the fifth did not appear to be oil contamination.' (One of the road kills was allegedly caused by a television crew's car.)

This rapid recovery was also a signature of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 disaster off Mexico in 1979. Although the number of turtles took decades to recover, much of the rest of the wildlife bounced back fairly rapidly. `To be honest, considering the magnitude of the spill, we thought the Ixtoc spill was going to have catastrophic effects for decades', Luis Soto of the National Autonomous University of Mexico told a newspaper this year. `But within a couple of years, almost everything was close to 100 percent normal again.' The warm waters and strong sunshine of the Gulf of Mexico are highly conducive to the chemical decomposition of oil by `photo-oxidation', and are stuffed full of organisms that actually like to eat the stuff – in moderation.

Read the whole op/ed here. Read Ridley's superb article "Ideas Having Sex" in the July issue of Reason. I highly recommend, Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. And join Ridley on the first ever Reason Cruise this February.

Disclosure: I am proud to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of the book.

NEXT: Reason Morning Links: Sherrod May Be Re-Hired, War on Terror Hits $1 Trillion, New Penalties for North Korea

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  1. Natural oil spills leak out over a million barrels of oil into the ocean a year. KA Kvenvolden has written several papers on the subject. It’s nasty, but the oil can and does get metabolized without caped political superheroes flying over the slick and pretending they can do something about it.

    1. Sure, but not in one spot. I don’t care if ten million kids piss in the ocean but I don’t want one pissing in my pool.

    2. Yes, there are natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s not exactly equivalent to the Deepwater Horizon spill. There are numerous seeps each releasing tiny amounts of oil, not a single gusher releasing a massive amount in one location. The small amount from each seep is easily metabolized by single-celled organisms because each “oil slick” is less than a millimeter thick and is a small enough amount that it can evaporate or disperse within a day.

      We should attempt to clean up the spill for two reasons, to minimize ecological (population of animals like sea turtles and pelicans, and destruction of oyster reef and marsh habitat) and economic (commercial fishing and beach tourism) damage.

      1. We should attempt to clean up the spill

        Apparently, though, in the past cleaning up spills has caused more damage than the spills themselves. Are current techniques that much better?

        1. No clue. I was not aware of that. I have heard the dispersant is toxic to marine life, though.

        2. I can’t imagine skimming doing a lot of damage. Not that it will make a great deal of difference, other than putting unemployed fisherman to work for a while.

          I think the biggest long-term damage to the economy of the region will be due to overly cautious bureaucrats keeping the fisheries closed for way longer than necessary.

    3. caped political superheroes flying over the slick and pretending they can do something about it

      Are you talking about me? You better not be talking about me. My oil spinner really works! I just need a government grant for more research.

      1. Do you actually know of Kevin Costner applying for a government grant.

        As far as I know, he’s put in $20M of his own money (along with other private investors, probably) and he’s sold 32 of them to BP.

        Costner may have done a lot of shit worthy of mockery but for you to deride him on this just shows that you’re an insufferable prick.

      2. Exactly. Mock him, if you will, for not being able to do accents, but as far as his “oil spinner” the guy should be commended. He done good.

  2. No wonder the world is dying from the attack of Climate Change. Gaia is spending all her energy fixing oil spills.

  3. I love Matt Ridley. Origins of Virtue, the Red Queen, and the 23 chromosomes book are some of the best general biology books I’ve read.

  4. What’s a tonne?

    1. A tonne is one thousand kilograms, sometimes called a metric ton.

      1. She so fat she ate the internet.

        1. When she sits around the house, she sits around the house!

          Oh snap!

    2. Looks like about 7 barrels. Here’s a link:

    3. “”What’s a tonne?””

      The redneck dictionary says it’s equal to 100 shitloads.

      1. Nuh-uh! It’s 93.7 shitloads (sometimes called buttloads).

  5. 1000 kilogrammes

    1. 1 kg = 2.20462 lb

  6. despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient.’ A scientist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that `Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico are just wild overreactions’.

    Surprisingly resilient?

    That’s just crazy talk. This oil spill will destroy the ecosystem!

  7. 1 barrel of oil = 0.136 tonne

    1. A barrel of oil is 42 gallons.
      A barrel of beer is 31 gallons.

      Why the difference?

      1. In the UK, a barrel of beer is 43 gallons.

    2. Really? My reference material says 0.1342 tonnes.

  8. Even if the area took 100 years to recover, that’s a very small blip of time for the earth. The problem is that we think nature needs make things happen in a time frame relative to humans.

  9. There are plenty of microorganisms that are on the market today to use in cleaning oil spills up. They’re generally in powdered form and sold in small batch kits to contractors for cleanup after a site spill. As I recall, they were pumping these organisms into the ground at the Exxon Valdez site. It seems it would be relatively simple to treat the left over water from the many oil/water centrifuges that are running down in the Gulf now. It wouldn’t be a cure all but it would speed the process without tremendous complications.

  10. Does Matt Ripley remind anybody else of Dr. Pangloss?

    No? Okay, it’s just me.

  11. I have an idea, let’s nationalize the oil industry. My good friend Hugo Chavez did it in Venezuela and look how good it’s working out there!

  12. Have you noticed that in NPR’s coverage, day after day, you never hear of much actual damage. You only hear of people anticipating damage. The poor reporters have to report more on anxiety than on anything that’s truly harmful.

    I expect that hindsight will show great overreaction by Louisiana and the US that needlessly disemployed thousands while sowing tales of woe that induced needless tourism decline.

    Actually, I don’t expect that because neither the government nor the media will want to report that.

    By the way, when economic losses due to a disaster are reported, are the economic gains from the extra newspapers and TV coverage sold because of the disaster included?

    1. Then when the actual big oil spill that causes actual damage comes along, people will just shrug their shoulders.

    2. It’s also worth noting that the media’s working definition of “environmental disaster” appears to be “disaster in which no people die”.

      Certainly the Great Water Spill in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a much larger environmental disaster than this oil spill. But since it killed 2200 people, it qualifies as an actual disaster rather than a merely environmental one.

  13. Shhhhhhhh….. Ronald…. How DARE you mention that nature is acutally resillient. Why, who would of though of that.

    I mean, after all, think of how devistated the North Atlantic still is 70 years after all those tankers were blasted by the U Boats, spilling massive quantities of evil black death upon the water. Heck, everthing was, and still is, dead out there.

    OK – snark off…. Shit, well DUH that the natural world is self regulating and inherently resillient. If it wasn’t, it would have died off long ago from some natural variations in climate, food supply, etc. Only a complete dip shit should be surprised how quickly natural forces restore things to their base condition when disturbed.

    1. Most of those tankers were carrying refined petroleum products which evaporate quickly. Plus, their sinkings were spread out over time and space.

      As a Pensacolan, I sure hope Ridley’s right, but I’ve read many anti-offshore-drilling articles in the Pensacola News Journal (before the Deepwater Horizon incident occurred) in which the authors compared our then-pristine white beaches to those of, say, Galveston, where supposedly tar balls are still washing ashore many years after oil spills.

  14. There’s certainly an awful lot of complete dip shits in the world then.

    They’re a major income source for Greenpeace, NRDC and The Union of Concerned Scientists, of course.

  15. Galveston, where supposedly tar balls are still washing ashore many years after oil spills.

    Crude oil seeps naturally out of the Gulf floor in many places. Not to mention that tankers will (illegally) flush their tanks. I doubt many, if any, of those tar balls are from offshore drilling accidents.

  16. The dispersant is the worst thing. Corexit

  17. are you talking about the dauphins,turtles,fish?

    ridley is full of S H I T

  18. So…. just ignore it then, and let it keep spilling?

  19. `What scientists have found is that, despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient.’

    The fisherman say otherwise; their catches have still not recovered. And after all, isn’t the market the ultimate arbiter of truth?

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  21. It seems the last nail in the coffin of journalism is pounded in with the hammer of a shill.

    Bear in mind, the volume of oil released is an valdez every 4 to 7 days. It’s been nearly 3 months. This needless apologism for bp’s failures belies the facts that other industries have already been destroyed. Painting the natural environment as a red headed stepchild which exists to be abused as though that were its purpose is a short sighted, dangerous view: the script for this may have been used in an attempt to plug the well— it doesn’t hold water.

  22. Huh…I guess that’s why Alsaka’s ecosystem has still not recovered to the same state it was before the 89 spill???????????????

  23. Rationalize all you want…
    This is terrible…
    This is greed unleashed and uncaring…
    Hold the buggers accountable.
    And no, the ecosystem will not survive in its present state, but yes, it will survive in another.

  24. I don’t understand how this is a ‘reasonable’ article. Finding a few anecdotes and saying that the environment will be OK?

    Come on, this would get a D in 9th grade writing class for being too shallow and brief and not examining the issue fully.

    An embarassement.

  25. This would get a D- in a 9th grade writing class for not going into enough depth.

    Congrats though you have redefined the word ‘reason’ to mean ‘annoying people with context free factoids’.

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