Gulf Oil Spill: Natural, International Disaster

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The good news about the BP Deep Horizon oil well is that, as of last report, the latest “top kill” method to stem the flow of oil has worked. For the time being anyway, the leak has slowed or stopped.

The bad news is that while oil well itself may be contained, the spill is not. Revised estimates of the amount of oil released are out, and it is now officially the worst oil spill in U.S. history, surpassing the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster.

It may take decades to clear up the spill, but misinformation about the spill is easier to tackle. A few weeks ago conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh stated that the amount of oil reaching the shore is roughly the natural level from the seepage that leaks out of the bottom of the Gulf, and that oil is natural.

Limbaugh’s information is badly outdated, but in a skewed, blinkered sort of way there’s a grain of truth to his position (which has since been parroted by others). It’s true that there is significant natural seepage into the Gulf of Mexico from oil deposits, but the latest estimates are that perhaps a million gallons of oil spewed into the gulf every day—far more than the 5,000 barrels Limbaugh suggested.

The oil that is killing wildlife, destroying habitat, and fouling the waters was already there in the earth. British Petroleum didn’t put the toxic stuff there, they were simply in the process of moving it from one place to another when the accident occurred. Limbaugh is correct: Oil itself is natural—in fact created over millions of years by completely natural processes.

The American public has come to equate “natural” with “good,” having been told that over and over again. Many foods, vitamins, herbs, “alternative medicines,” and countless other consumer products are advertised as natural—in fact that’s a main selling point.

But as Limbaugh might have learned in high school science class, “natural” is not the same as “non-toxic.” Plenty of natural things can harm or kill living organisms, including mercury and lead. Salt water is perfectly natural—and toxic to freshwater fish. Sunlight is perhaps the most natural thing in the universe—and a proven carcinogen. And yes, the oil that is coating the gulf is both natural and toxic.

In seeing all the damage the oil has done, it’s easy to become enraged at the petroleum industry. BP in particular has been justifiably demonized for inadequate safety measures to prevent or minimize oil spills.

But there’s nothing inherently evil or deleterious about mining for oil, metals, minerals, or any other natural resource. President Obama has vowed to cancel offshore drilling projects, and hopefully current and future oil wells will be far safer in the wake of this disaster. It’s a good start, but mined resources are by definition non-renewable, and will be depleted (or inaccessible) at some point years, decades, or centuries from now. Future generations may not need to worry about oil spills because there won’t be any oil to spill.

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