Climate Progress makes a point that I've been thinking a lot about lately...
...history has taught that no amount of clean up effort will ever be able to fully reverse the spill of many millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. The legacy of Exxon Valdez still lingers today; Dr. Jeffrey Short of Oceana testified in a 2009 hearing that:
"Despite heroic efforts involving more than 11,000 people, 2 billion dollars, and aggressive application of the most advanced technology available, only about 8 percent of the oil was ever recovered. This recovery rate is fairly typical rate for a large oil spill. About 20 percent evaporated, 50 percent contaminated beaches, and the rest floated out to the North Pacific Ocean where it formed tarballs that eventually stranded elsewhere or sank to the seafloor."
This is yet more evidence that 20-year Coast Guard veteran Dr. Robert Brulle is right: "With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response."
Even best-case scenario, only a small percentage of the oil could be cleaned up—and we're long past best case. I'm on to wondering about what happens if we can't cap the well at all. National Geographic offers a partial answer: The well could pump out oil for years, and the Gulf of Mexico would be left with the kind of devastation still seen in the Persian Gulf where the Iraqi army intentionally dumped some 336 million gallons during the 1991 Gulf War.
Up to 89 percent of the Saudi marshes and 71 percent of the mud flats had not bounced back after 12 years, the team discovered. "It was amazing to stand there and look across what used to be a salt marsh and it was all dead—not even a live crab," Hayes said.
There is no easy fix. The problem isn't that BP should have run their business without any accidents, the problem is that they seem to have had no backup plan for how to stop an accident that went beyond "normal". There is no technology that's proven to cap or even mostly clean up spills of this magnitude. That's the reality we're facing, and it isn't pretty.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.