Ohhhh … this is what BP's public relations department has been working on.

BP is trying to sell the story that "everyone" is asking "where is all the oil?". More than a few stories have popped up during my news reading that raise that question.

One of the most galling articles was written up in Time.com by Michael Grunwald which carried the headline "BP Oil: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?" His piece extensively quotes people who Grunwald admits are on BP's payroll. Not surprisingly, their quotes overwhelming call into question the real impact of the oil, actually downplaying the disastrous impact of dumping a few hundred million gallons of oil, toxic dispersants, and methane into the ocean.

Let's look at some of Grunwald's piece.

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who's working for a spill-response contractor, says, "There's just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we're not seeing catastrophic impacts."
Heerden, who gets funding from BP, suggests that a lack of data means the impact wasn't catastrophic. It ignores that the disaster is still relatively fresh and that loads of data will be collected in the future by scientists studying the leak. It also blithely flitters over the fact that BP has resisted scientists from collecting data at every step of the way — for one, we don't know exactly how much was leaking out because BP didn't allow flow-rate monitors to be put in place.

Another bit of Heerden:

Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden's assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I've ever seen that were actually black. "It comes back fast, doesn't it?" van Heerden said.
No, it doesn't. Heerden is dissembling, grasses don't "come back" in mere months after a spill. You can still scratch below the sand in Valdez, Alaska, and find oil. It's the same for nearly every large oil spill in recent history. Yes, oil does eventually break down, but when a large spill happens, a lot of the oil can get preserved underneath the surface, screwing up the food web for decades. BP's spill was unique in how deep it was; it's thought that the cold, dark, deep waters the oil flowed into could act as a similar preserving agent. And even when the oil does get eaten by bacteria, it can cause massive dead zones by sucking out all the oxygen out of the surrounding waters.


So far, the teams have collected nearly 3,000 dead birds, but fewer than half of them were visibly oiled; some may have died from eating oil-contaminated food, but others may have simply died naturally at a time when the Gulf happened to be crawling with carcass seekers. In any case, the Valdez may have killed as many as 435,000 birds.
NOAA says that for every one bird that was found oiled and dead, another 99 were brought out to sea and were uncounted. Those 3,000 dead sea birds mean that at least 297,000 other birds died unseen. That's not too far off from Valdez's official tally of 435,000 birds. Both are terrible numbers.

Another gem:

LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana's coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. "We don't want to deny that there's some damage, but nothing like the damage we've seen for years," he says.
Oh, I feel better. BP's single spill didn't do as much damage as decades of the oil industry tearing up the Gulf Coast. Don't you feel better?

The one paragraph where Grunwald talks about the potential dangers — the long-term effects on the food web and ecosystem and the potential for huge dead zones — are followed with this breezy throw away: "People always fear the worst in a spill, and this one was especially scary because we didn't know when it would stop," says [geochemist Jacqueline] Michel, an environmental consultant who has worked spills for NOAA for more than 30 years. "But the public always overestimates the danger — and this time, those of us in the spill business did, too."

It ends:

Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have obvious incentives to accentuate the negative in the Gulf. So do the media, because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines; those oil-soaked pelicans you saw on TV (and the cover of TIME) were a lot more compelling than the healthy ones I saw roosting on a protective boom in Bay Jimmy. Even [Rush] Limbaugh, when he wasn't downplaying the spill, outrageously hyped it as "Obama's Katrina." But honest scientists don't do that, even when they work for Audubon.

"There are a lot of alarmists in the bird world," Kemp says. "People see oiled pelicans and they go crazy. But this has been a disaster for people, not biota."

How can Paul Kemp possibly say that the oil spill isn't a disaster for "biota", also known as all the plants and animals in the Gulf? Hundreds of millions of gallons of oil and nearly as much natural gas was released into the ocean. The spill is now killing everything in its path, leaving behind oxygen-starved waters and contaminating the food chain itself (oil has been found inside baby crabs). The oil that makes it ashore chokes off plant life and decimates birds and habitat. It settles in and is likely to cause death and disease for the next few decades.

On top of the oil, BP dumped millions of gallons of Corexit, a toxic, oil-derived solvent and dispersant that helped keep the oil from floating to the surface and that has been shown to make the oil more toxic by making it easier for organisms to absorb.

BP's oil spill killed a lot of life; it's downright preposterous for anyone to suggest that it was anything short of a disaster.

Mac McClelland, who has been covering BP's oil spill better than almost anyone out there, was wonderfully blunt in a recent article in Mother Jones:

"WASHINGTON (AFP) – With BP's broken well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface cleanup and the question on everyone's lips is: where is all the oil?"

NEW ORLEANS (Mother Jones) – I don't know who the BLEEP (Shea's note: Mac doesn't say 'BLEEP', but MNN likes to keep the language PG-13, so I have to bleep out her much better original word) these everyones are, but I'm happy to help out them, and ABC, and this AFP reporter writing that due to BP's stunningly successful skimming and burning efforts, "the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up."

I sent one text message to Bloomberg's Lizzie O'Leary, who's standing on Grand Isle, Louisiana, right now, asking how the beach looks. "Lower part past the barrier untouched with globs of oil that washed up last night," she said. By "untouched," she means by cleanup crews, and that "barrier" she's talking about is the one the press isn't allowed past. I sent another text to Drew Wheelan, who's also in Southwestern Louisiana, doing bird surveys for the American Birding Association, asking him how big the biggest tar mat on Grand Terre — the scene of those now famous horrifying oiled-bird photos — is. "20 feet by 15," he said. "But bigger ones submerged slightly."

If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let's hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, "What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it," can locate some more with the staff and craft of the U.S. Coast Guard at his disposal.

It'd be a tragedy on top of a tragedy if the world lets BP get away with selling the story that the oil has somehow magically disappeared. Let's try to not let that happen.

For a great breakdown of BP's PR strategy, read the excellent book "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming."

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