Sunday, August 1, 2010

BP Oil Spill: Disaster, Media Hype or Fitting a Narrative?

The BP oil spill in the Gulf was an environmental disaster wasn’t it? Tony Hayward fell on his sword didn’t he (the point being nicely dulled by a pension but a gesture nonetheless)? BP have set aside billions to pay for the clean-up and for compensation haven’t they? A big commercial company wouldn’t do that if it didn’t need to surely? President Obama’s rating have plunged based on perceptions of his response. Photographs of oil covered pelicans fill the Web. But is the oil spill the eco-disaster that the images on the news and Web state?

A rethink, backlash, call it what you like is starting to emerge as exemplified by the article in Time on 29th July 2010 by Michael Grunwald (The BP Oil Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?), highlights that the oil spill disaster appears to be a lot less of a disaster than the public had been lead to believe by President Obama, by Green groups, the media and local Gulf communities. The article outlines four reasons why the spill isn’t as damaging as it was initially made out to be. Firstly, the oil from Deepwater is lighter and more degradable than usual (meaning in comparison with the Valdez oil spill). Secondly, the Gulf is warmer and, again comparing to the colder water associated with the Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, so bacteria has been able to break down the oil more rapidly. Thirdly, the flow from the Mississippi has kept oil away from the coast. Lastly, Mother Nature, apparently, is incredibly resilient.

Grundwald supports his argument with comments from a number of spill-response fund contractors, in particular a former Louisiana State University professor Ivor van Heerden who he reminds readers debunked, along with out the Paul Kemp another former LSU professor, the myths the overtopping of the levees by Katrina being due to the nature of the extreme event, as suggested Army Corps of Engineers, and the role of engineering failures in the disaster. The subsequent suggested harassment and van Heerden’s loss of post are used to imply a martyr for the truth. Kemp also highlights to the author that the oil spill is a tiny contributor to the 2,000 sq. mile loss of coastal Louisiana over the last century with the canals and pipelines of the oil and gas industry being highlighted as potential contributors. Similarly, he cites and annual rate of loss of wetlands of 15,000 acres in Louisiana, whilst only 350 acres of oiled marshes have been found by assessment teams (leave aside for a moment if the two terms are technically the same and how identification is made by assessment team – it still implies a minor impact).

So has the oil spill been hyped up, only now to be found to be a leak, as Grundwald begrudgingly credits Rush Limbaugh as foreseeing? The answer is tied up with how the spill has been represented and with the expectations this raises about how the story should unfold. Science is meant to be an objective process, a final, impartial arbitrator, yet it rarely is. Grunwald is at pains to point out the affiliations of his sources, mostly scientists working for spill-response fund contractors, suggesting he understands the funding of the source will be seen as an important issue by his readers. Why? If science is objective then whoever funds it shouldn’t matter, the facts will remain the same. Science does provide a consistent method for producing consistent and repeatable results (anyone really, deeply interested in this I refer to my textbook, Science, Philosophy and Physical Geography, insomniacs will find it very useful!) The questions asked, the type of information obtained, the theories tested and interpretation is all a matter for choice. Sometimes choice is extremely limited as one technique becomes the standard in a field of study, for other areas of science there may be a range of techniques for trying not answer the same type of questions. In a field science, which is what the ecologists, biologists and engineers are trying to practice, the complexity of the real world they are trying to study makes determining a single unequivocal interpretation extremely difficult. On top of the signature of the oil spill you have the signature of long-term changes and of site-specific impacts such as canal developments that can hide, amplify or do nothing to the impact of the oil spill. This is not the simple, clear narrative that the media or, to some extent, the public want.

The labelling of the BP oil spill as an environmental disaster resulted in an almost immediately referral back to the Valdez oil spill. The visual storyline that unfolded was graphic in its portrayal of shivering, oil soaked birds, they feathers slick with black gooe. Waves of blackness struggling to break on black shore, a stark contrast to the pristine whiteness of the mountains often just in view. Armies of volunteers crying as the corpses of wildlife were dredged from the shores of the sound. There was even a clear villain – the captain of the vessel, so an easy target for blame. In other words, the media referred back to an incident that had a clear narrative structure allied by a clear series of visual images to back up that narrative structure. The label oil spill was associated in the mind of the media and the public with those images, with that narrative.

The BP oil spill of 2010, as it is now labelled, is a different beast. The context is different. This is not an enclosed body of water; it is a large, dynamic expanse of fluid into which the oil is spilling. The dynamics of dispersal are different and so the damage may be different both spatially and through time. There are images of pathetic-looking pelicans but often recycled rather than new images. There are no images of vast expanses of oil-soaked beaches with tourists struggling bare-foot through oil-caked sand. In other words, the storyline doesn’t match the Valdez. There is no struggle of fragile nature to witness in close-up, there is no valiant struggle of volunteers with the hint of nature redeemed by humanity; there may be a villain but Tony Hayward is now exiting stage left. The visual story does not match the story of the Valdez, so the impression is the disaster is not as significant. Without the visuals that match the expected story of environmental disaster dictated by the Valdez, what narrative can the media resort to?

Mother Nature is incredibly resilient apparently. Another narrative. Evidence can be selected to support this as Grunwald does. Environmentalists would state that nature is delicately balanced and we disturb that. Another narrative and another set of evidence. The impact of the BP spill may take a lot more scientific research to pin down; it may interfere with environmental systems in unexpected ways, it may take a short time, it may take years, it may produce newsworthy pictures and stories, it may produce dry, detailed and rigorous academic papers. The psychological blow of the spill to the perception of the Gulf coast as a safe clean area is part of this impact. The spill was a disaster for those killed in the blast, it is a an ongoing environmental disaster but it is different in its nature from the seeming point of reference for the media and some of the public, the Exxon Valdez. The impact is and will be complex, but it will unfold with its story, its own spatial and temporal scales. Media-wish this may or may not fit neatly into an existing narrative. What is certain is that the media, the politicians, environmentalists, the bloke at the bar, will all take the opportunity to interpret the spill in their own way, to fit their narrative and, importantly, to fit their own political views and needs.

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