This site respects your privacy. GAP will not record your IP address or browser information. A detailed privacy statement can be found here.
Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

If 10,000 Barrels of Oil Spill into the Ocean, Does it Make a Sound?

Adam Arnold, October 26, 2017

Earlier this month, upwards of 16,000 barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, less than 40 miles offshore of Louisiana. It should be a surprise that such a spill received little major news coverage, except that spills and leaks of oil and gas occur all the time and are usually not reported on until they directly impact human health or property – that is, until they are big enough to be noticed.

Broken deep-sea drilling equipment, when unaccompanied by deadly explosions, can be hard to notice, at least by the public.

How big of an oil spill warrants media attention?

This is probably the largest spill in the Gulf since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. On the other hand, the reported amount of oil spilled is not even 0.4% the amount emitted following the BP blowout. Has the preposterous scale of that catastrophe numbed us to anything less than an environmental nightmare? Are “minor” oil spills now like the day-to-day murders, accidents and suicides that make up the bulk of US gun deaths every year, with incidents like Deepwater Horizon the mass shootings that grab headlines and raise issues – only to be ignored again after a few weeks of discussion leading to no meaningful addressing of the issue?

As much as 700,000 gallons of oil escaped from a fractured underwater pipeline belonging to LLOG Exploration Company under the Gulf of Mexico, but little coverage was given by major news sources. Is this because other news during the story-per-minute Trump era pushed it off the front page, or is it because, after the approximately 210-million gallon gusher following the deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the explosion- and death-free spilling of a mere 10,000-16,000 barrels no longer moves the ratings needle?

Either way, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle it could seem shocking that a spill of this size – regardless of what has come before – can be buried in the literal and proverbial back pages. Instead, it fits into a pattern of cynical indifference that seems to mark contemporary discourse.

How many smaller spills go completely unreported?

Original estimates of the current spill claimed less than 10,000 barrels/400,000 gallons of oil had leaked. Not surprisingly, more recent reports say it could be nearly twice that amount. This makes clear what has been known since 2010: oil and gas companies either lack the ability to make accurate estimates of their spills, or deliberately choose to underestimate. Regardless, in this instance, neither the initial figure nor the updated one is getting much media attention.

If 700,000 gallons barely gets a blip, are there many smaller spills that go unnoticed by the public? Two factors suggest this is so: first, internet searches for oil spills invariably bring up results regarding “major” spills, or “largest of all time” rankings. “Run-of-the-mill” spills do not seem to be of great concern, at least to the internet community. The oil industry is no doubt happy to keep things this way.

But perhaps more significantly, on-shore leaks from pipelines and storage facilities routinely go unreported unless they impact the public directly, such as by polluting private farmland. Disgruntled farmers are unlikely to be found at sea, however, and fishermen do not own the water they fish. And, of course, the ocean is vast – enormous spills may well go unnoticed, and thus unreported.

The problem is one of cumulative impacts. While the devastating consequences of the BP disaster – despite being understated by the guilty parties in particular – are clearly visible (and ongoing – see here and here), the result of numerous small spills may be a death-by-a-thousand-cuts. But we would never know, since we don’t seem to know how many spills really take place.

Does the lack of reporting enable inadequate cleanup?

Another thing learned through the Deepwater Horizon fiasco was that cleanup can create problems of its own, even multiplying the damage. And that took place despite millions of eyes on the scene. When virtually no one is looking, how is the public to know how successful cleanup may or may not be?

As GAP reported on extensively following the BP disaster, the use of chemical dispersants to “clean up” oil spills is hugely problematic. In the case of BP, problems arose – at least in part – because the dispersants were used in unprecedented ways: they were used directly at the site of the blowout, and used in quantities far beyond the amounts ever intended. As a consequence, damage to human health and the environment – not to mention economic damage – has been much worse than it would have been had dispersants not been used at all.

While the latest spill does not seem to present the same type of risks, it raises the question of whether cumulative dispersant use on many small spills is significantly less hazardous than the use all-at-once of millions of gallons of Corexit or other chemicals that are currently permitted for use.

And this fuels one more question: when will the regulation of dispersant use be updated and improved based on lessons learned following the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Rulemaking was kicked down the road throughout the final years of the Obama Administration. Under the Trump/Pruitt EPA – whose motto seems to be “drill, baby, drill,” – will a greater effort be made to assure that future spills are managed more effectively? Or, as appears to be their wont, will the President and his EPA head rely on denial and misdirection to claim that oil drilling is a harmless practice?

Given the lack of reporting on a 300,000-gallon spill within 40 miles of the US coast, the answer may be much clearer than the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.