How Quickly We Forget

Our addiction to cheap energy has a way of clouding memories of even the most vivid disasters.

In trying to predict the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the obvious places to seek clues are other mammoth oil spills. We can look to the coast of Brittany, where on March 16, 1978, the Amoco Cadiz tanker ran aground en route from the Persian Gulf to Le Havre, spilling 68 million gallons of oil and causing an 18- by 80-mile slick that polluted 200 miles of coastline. Or we can analyze the June 3, 1979, blowout of the Ixtoc I, an exploratory well 600 miles south of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, which spilled more than 420,000 gallons per day until it was capped the following March. Or we can look to Prince William Sound, where on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef while leaving Port of Valdez, Alaska. The 10.9 million gallons of crude that gushed out of its hull made this the worst oil spill in U.S. waters, though it now has competition from the Deepwater Horizon, which sank in the gulf on April 22, Earth Day.

The truly lasting effect of such disasters is not the obvious, however. It isn’t the millions of dead mollusks and sea urchins in Brittany, which also saw the almost complete disappearance of some crustaceans, tens of thousands of dead birds, and decimated oyster beds and fisheries. It isn’t the massive bird kills (especially royal terns, blue-faced boobies, piping plovers, and snowy plovers) caused by Ixtoc, most of whose oil stayed far out at sea rather than hitting vulnerable coasts. And it isn’t the still-moribund herring fishery in Prince William Sound, the otters and harlequin ducks there that are still exposed to Exxon oil, or the Alaskan coastal communities that have yet to recover economically or psychologically.

The legacy of environmental catastrophes is, instead, a hybrid of amnesia and habituation. That is, the public forgets more quickly now than in the past, and understands that no source of energy is risk-free. Coal kills miners, including the 25 in West Virginia last month. Natural-gas pipelines sometimes explode and occasionally kill, as in a 2000 accident that left 12 people dead in New Mexico. Nuclear reactors, despite industry assurances, will never be risk-free; no technology is. The “risks” of renewables such as wind and solar are higher energy prices, which to many people are less acceptable than the environmental and human costs of fossil fuel. “There has been a generational change in risk tolerance,” says engineering professor Henry Petroski of Duke University, author of the 2010 book The Essential Engineer. “The public has become more familiar with the concept of risk, and the fact that it is ubiquitous. The bumper sticker S--T HAPPENS used to be a fringe phenomenon, but now it’s mainstream: people have become resigned to risk.”

As a result, the effect of energy-related environmental disasters on public consciousness and public policy is becoming more and more fleeting. The Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill of 1969—another blowout—sparked the green movement (the first Earth Day was the following year) and made expanding offshore oil drilling a political nonstarter for decades. Northern California was even exempted from President Obama’s call in March for expanded offshore drilling. But the political and public-opinion effects of massive oil spills are not what they once were. Granted that the extent of the Deepwater Horizon accident was not clear at first, it is nonetheless striking how long it took environmental groups to muster outrage. Blogs on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Web site noted the blowout on April 23, a day after the rig sank, but then not again until April 29. (Last week there were roughly seven posts a day.) It was almost oh, well, just another oil spill.

The muted reaction initially—and, to go out on a limb here, probably over the long term as well—arguably reflects a radical shift in what environmental risks we are willing to tolerate. For more than a decade we have been bombarded (and I have done some of the bombarding) with near-apocalyptic forecasts of the hell that climate change will bring. The public processes these warnings as things they have been hearing for years but that have not occurred. Devastated gulf fisheries? Millions of dead seabirds? Tell me when the bodies wash up.

And climate cataclysm is only one on a long list of risks, from the recall of children’s Tylenol to tainted Chinese milk and BPA’d baby bottles. Oh, and terrorism and unemployment and foreclosures. “We move on to the next risk du jour faster and faster,” says David Ropeik, author of the new book How Risky Is It, Really? “We’ve had three pandemic warnings—SARS, avian flu, swine flu—in the last few years, and with each we become less sensitive. After you live with something for a while, and oil spills are something we’ve lived with, we develop an intuitive sense that the risk is less than we first thought.” Since the 1979 core meltdown at Three Mile Island, not a single commercial reactor has been built, but public acceptance of the technology has risen with the passage of time.

Memories and outrage fade. At the time the Exxon Valdez ran aground, “the oil lobby had a big head of steam and was pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [ANWR] to drilling,” recalls Riki Ott, a toxicologist and activist in southwest Alaska. “The Exxon Valdez quashed that effort,” but not for long. The “Drill, baby, drill” crowd almost succeeded in opening up ANWR in the early 2000s, just a dozen years after the Valdez. “Now the industry has a big head of steam about opening the entire outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling,” says Ott. It won’t get its way this year: Obama has backed off from his pro-drilling stance, and the Interior Department suspended the sale of oil and gas leases off Virginia last week. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, warning of a disaster of “epidemic proportions,” says expanded offshore drilling is no longer a done deal in the Senate. A Rasmussen poll finds that support for offshore drilling among likely voters fell from 72 percent just before the gulf blowout to 58 percent now. But don’t count on that drop lasting.

Climate blogger Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress disagrees, arguing, “I think this is likely to be such a megadisaster that it will change public opinion.” My skepticism is not to minimize what the Deepwater Horizon accident has already wrought, nor what could happen if engineers don’t cap the gushing oil soon. The backlash will be stronger, and longer, if oil fouls the beaches of west Florida, to say nothing of the Keys and (if the oil gets into the loop current that swings northeast from the gulf) the Eastern Seaboard. If the oil reaches mangrove swamps and marshlands on the Louisiana coast, it cannot be vacuumed up, as it can on sandy or rocky beaches where tidal action turns the crude into tar balls. The oil will insinuate itself into and around grass and mangrove roots, explains avian toxicologist Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy, who worked on the Valdez spill. It will remain for years, entering food chains and contaminating brown pelicans, terns, and other seabirds for generations. Microbes will degrade some of the oil, and fertilizing those bugs will bring more oil eaters to the table. But such bioremediation is slow, and is not sped up by adding bacteria engineered to eat oil, says microbiologist Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville.

Dead birds tug at the public’s heartstrings, and the loss of gulf shrimp, tuna, crab, and other fisheries will take a brutal economic toll locally. Even that should be temporary, however. In Prince William Sound, the herring fishery remains moribund, but others have recovered, says Arny Blanchard of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The real disaster for the gulf would come if the polluted mangrove swamps and grassy coastal marshlands die from oil coating their roots, which Fry calls a real possibility. Since the swamps and marshes anchor barrier islands, losing them would put the islands at risk of being inundated by storm surges. In that case, the coasts they protect would be exposed to the full fury of tomorrow’s Katrinas.

Even if that happens, veterans of the environmental wars wonder how much anyone a few ZIP codes away will care. The rise in alcoholism, suicide, and domestic violence in the Alaskan towns hardest hit by the Valdez spill had no effect—none—on the enthusiasm for drilling, even in Alaska. The deaths of an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and a dozen killer whales was little more than a speed bump for oil development. The Oil Pollution Act that Congress passed after the Valdez mandated double hulls for large oil tankers, but the industry got the phase-in delayed …until 2015. “For people for whom all there is to life is commuting in their SUV to their job and then sitting in front of an electronic screen and watching a figment of reality, I suspect the impact [of the gulf oil spill] would not be very great for quite some time,” predicts Jeffrey Short, who was part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team that worked on the Valdez spill and is now Pacific science director for the environmental group Oceana.

His description applies to millions of Americans. Those who already opposed expanded offshore drilling still do. Most of those who favored it still do. Those on the fence may have gone over to the anti side for now, but if the past is prelude, not for long. Four days after the Deepwater Horizon sank, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute posted an online essay arguing that the threat of oil spills is “largely obsolete. Improvements in drilling technology have greatly reduced the risk of the kind of offshore spill that occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969?.?.?.?To fear oil spills from offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop-plane crashes in the 1950s.” That is a target of Internet derision today. But wait for the argument to be trotted out, successfully, in the not-too-distant future.

With Ian Yarett