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A large oil slick floats about a mile off Perdido Key, FL, where cleanup crews worked to recover the oil, Saturday, June 12, 2010. (Courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response/Petty Officer 1st Class Tasha Tully)

Five Myths of the Gulf Oil Spill

Myth number one: Oil spills are rare

smithsonian.com

With oil spilling from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for nearly two months now, it's not shocking that there's plenty of misinformation and wrongful assumptions passing over airwaves and in conversations with friends and colleagues. Here are five myths I've heard lately: 

Oil spills are rare: There are hundreds of oil spills around the world every year; oil is lost during both extraction from the ground and transport in ships and through pipes. In the United States, there have been more than a dozen spills in the last decade, including one in Utah last week. But it's easy to ignore here, unless the spill reaches the level of Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez. In Nigeria, a country blessed—or cursed—with vast oil reserves, there are 175 oil spills on average each year. Even if we believe the oil companies' claim that the frequency of spills has been decreasing, it's hard to believe them when they say such events are rare. 

Shallow water drilling is safe: No drilling is risk-free. Drilling in shallow water may, theoretically, make it easier to fix a spewing well but that may not happen in reality: The worst accidental oil spill currently on the record books, Ixtoc I, occurred in only 160 feet of water. It has eerie similarities to Deepwater Horizon—it occurred in the Gulf as the result of a blowout—and it took nearly 10 months to be capped. 

BP/the government/the military can just shut off the oil whenever they want: The magic cutoff switch doesn't exist. If anything, that switch would have been the blowout preventer, which was the bit that failed and allowed the catastrophe to happen. BP is currently drilling relief wells that they hope will allow them to cap off the original well, but that will not happen until August. That nuclear option that pops into the news every couple of weeks? That isn't, and shouldn't be, on the table. 

Building barrier islands will protect wetlands: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon construct 45 miles of artificial berms off the coast of Louisiana. They are intended to protect Mississippi Delta wetlands. However, dredging the sea floor to create the islands will destroy the creatures that live on an in the seabed. The berms may restrict the flow of water that the wetlands depend on and prevent tides from washing away the oil that is already there. They may redirect the oil to other environmentally sensitive areas. And it is not clear how long the islands will last; they would quickly wash away in a storm.

The Gulf coast will be better than before: Sure, given enough time and some help, the Gulf ecosystem will adapt and recover from the oil spill. But the longer this goes on and the more oil dumped into the sea, the longer that will take. And who knows what we'll lose permanently?

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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