How bad was the Deepwater Horizon spill?



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    There was a point not even that long ago when it seemed very bad manners to say anything like this.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, It seems these things have to fade somewhat from public awareness before you’re allowed to be sensible about them. Even Stuart Brand now says that the cleanup after the Exxon Valdeze spill was more distructive than the spill itself and that judging from what’s happened to the oil left in the tanker it would have been better just to let it all alone. But I’m sure he wouldn’t have said that at the time.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,
      Now it’s simply very stupid.Report

  2. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    Can you say, “Environmental Wacko?” Should be part of the phrase “baby-killin’, commie-Dems” used in smart circle to describe the incredibly f*cked up Democrats. And, Algore invented the internet.Report

  3. Avatar Travis says:

    Schwennesen’s entire argument fails on one point: the oil isn’t evenly distributed throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico. Not even close.Report

    • Avatar Travis says:

      To put it another way, if you took all the sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc. that is pumped into the air in the Los Angeles Basin and spread it equally across the entire United States airspace, you could plausibly claim that it’s a meaninglessly small amount.

      But that comparison is entirely spurious, because the pollution is *not* spread across the entire U.S. airspace, but concentrated in a small area, where it clearly does have localized impacts.

      So, sure, if you took the amount of oil spilled by Deepwater Horizon and spread it equally across the entire Gulf of Mexico, it might be a meaninglessly small amount.

      But that’s not what happened. His premise is flawed and hence his results are nonsense.Report

  4. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    The analogy is really *fatally* flawed… there’s a number of problems with this analysis, and shows why people shouldn’t talk about scaling unless they really understand about scaling problems. It’s evident that he doesn’t. Mr. Schwennesen’s premise might be correct, of course, but this is a crappy way to defend it.

    Here’s a couple of glaring problems… nothing about the spill even has anything to do with uniform distribution, the volume of the Gulf has almost nothing to do with the impact of a non-uniform spill on ecosystems (given that a large volume of the ecological diversity in an body of water is in a very particular subset of the volume of the body of water – that volume that is coincidentally most impacted by oil, given density issues), and complex systems can easily collapse from exception events, provided the exception exceeds a particular equilibrium boundary.

    The botulism analogy is really poor; sure, I could drop that concentration of botulism in a swimming pool and then go swimming in it without ill effects.

    But I sure as hell couldn’t put a corresponding concentration of botulism *in my body* and go on without ill effects, even with the relevant volume being consistent. So, if you’re comparing an ecosystem to a swimming pool, your numbers are correct, but your consequences aren’t relevant. Compare an ecosystem to a biological organism, and you get a much better idea of the potential problems.

    To illustrate the point more directly: there’s lots of radioactive material in the Earth’s crust. A couple hundred pounds of plutonium is a vanishingly small amount, statistically, so small it would fall outside a reasonable delta for almost every practical error margin. Put it in one place under the right conditions, and that vanishingly small amount has some serious mofreakin’ consequences.

    Also: really odd to link to one science link (which, cough, is broken) in defense of part of your argument, and then another science link as “shrill cries of ‘collapse'”.

    Either the science is good, or the science is bad. You don’t get to cherry pick evidence in science, Mr. Schwennesen. If some scientists are incorrect about system collapse, you need to take the evidence that supports your position and present it in counter to *their* evidence. The link to Auburn that he tags as “shrill cries” has some decent author credentials ( If you’re going to characterize their analysis negatively, pony up some evidence.

    Paul Schwennesen doesn’t have a bio on that site, so I don’t know what his background in science or mathematics is, but pulling out two horrendously bad analogies in one post doesn’t bode well for his understanding of scaling issues in complex systems at all.Report

  5. Avatar Trumwill says:

    This is a confusing question to me because it is not easily put in partisan terms. You see, if I support Obama and the spill was not so bad it proves that his instincts were correct to be initially relaxed about it and the Republicans were politicizing a non-issue, but if the spill was really bad it just demonstrates how important it is to stop offshore drilling and stand up to the evil oil companies. If I oppose Obama, though, I can make the same arguments in reverse… if it’s bad it just goes to show how much Obama f’ed it up and if it’s not so bad it just goes to show that we need to drill for oil everywhere and Obama was politicizing it by attacking the oil companies.

    Without a clear partisan motive, I’m afraid that I just can’t determine which helps furthers my partisan cause the most… I mean, is so rock-solid true that anyone who thinks otherwise is a liar.Report