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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Natural resilience

What happens after oil spills

I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the newspaper, together with links.

So long as the cap holds, and assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to 600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979, the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc 1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.

All this, just when things were going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades, from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a drop of more than 90%.

No wonder the other oil companies are livid with BP, a company that spent the last decade and a half burnishing its reputation as an environmental paragon, apparently to the detriment of its capacity to manage old-fashioned oil production safely. `Within the fossil fuel industry itself,' said the prominent environmentalist Lester Brown in 1998, `some companies such as Enron, British Petroleum, and ... are already looking to the future, and beginning to invest in alternative energy sources.' It seems unkind to curse the third firm he mentioned by naming it, but let's call it Scallop.

The clean-up will be long and difficult, and the effects of the spill will be felt for a long time in the pensions of Britons, the priorities of politicians and regulators as well as the pelicans of the Gulf. So it might be a good idea to learn lessons from previous oil spill clean-ups. Some of these are surprising.

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 Administrationsays 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.

Indeed, the sea floor in the Gulf is rich in `cold seeps' -- communities of tube worms and other organisms that live off oil naturally seeping from beneath the seabed. (The annual flow of oil through such seeps is about half the total spill.) Hundreds of these clusters of clams and tube worms have been found since the 1980s in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, living off the microbes that eat the oil.

Such ecosystems are not equipped to cope with being inundated with so much oil even if it is their food, but one Texas scientist told the New York Times that `the gulf is such a great fishery because it's fed organic matter from oil...it's pre-adapted to crude oil. The image of this spill being a complete disaster is not true.'

Another lesson to learn is that the media covers the disaster and not the recovery. When the Sea Empress spilled 70,000 tonnes of oil off Pembrokeshire in 1996, the oil was quickly dispersed. The impact on the 500,000 pairs of birds that breed nearby was relatively small, but the impact on the 500,000 tourists who normally visited the beaches of Pembrokeshire each year- and the businesses that relied on them - was dire. In about a year Louisiana's tourist businesses will be protesting that their beaches are now clean and would the tourists please come back, but the media will largely ignore them. Good news is no news.

The final lesson is that the environmental threats that matter are the slow, continuous ones, not the telegenic sensations like oil spills. BP's spill is known to have killed just over 1,300 birds so far. Just one wind farm, at Altamont Pass in California, was until recently known to kill perhaps 1,300 birds of prey every year. If BP really wants to kill birds, it should indeed go beyond petroleum and into wind, an industry that kills far more rare birds per joule of energy produced than oil does.