Gulf of Mexico spill 'not yet environmental catastrophe'

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not yet an environmental "catastrophe" - but could potentially become one as the hurricane season gets under way, scientists have said.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not yet an environmental "catastrophe" - but could potentially become one as the hurricane season gets under way, scientists have said.

The thousands of tonnes of oil pouring into the ocean remain largely out at sea, and doing nothing beyond taking steps to protect sensitive habitats may be environmentally - if not politically - the best option, they said.

The British scientists said that, on the evidence from previous spills, adding chemicals to the sea to disperse the oil or burning it off the surface could have worse impacts than the oil itself.

Dr Martin Preston, an expert in marine pollution from the University of Liverpool, said of the spill: "Economically the impact has clearly been very large, but environmentally the jury is still out."

But he said: "Politicians cannot be seen to be doing nothing, when sometimes doing nothing is the best option.

"The risk of making things worse by acting is quite significant and a rather gung-ho attitude to clean-up can end up causing more damage than if it's been left alone."

The spill was not yet a catastrophe on the same scale as other major leaks which had happened in shallower water or closer to land.

But hurricanes - depending on the path they took across the Gulf - could have an influence on how much oil was pushed onshore in the next few months.

Dr Preston said the peak of the hurricane season would come as BP attempted to secure the relief well in August.

Winds and storm surges driven by hurricanes could either push oil towards land or away from it depending on the path of the storm.

Hurricanes crossing the area of the spill would also force the vessels siphoning off some of the oil to evacuate the area - leaving oil spilling into the open ocean, he said.

And it could delay efforts to install the relief well to kill the flow of oil, according to Prof Geoffrey Maitland of Imperial College London.

Dr Simon Boxall, of the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, said the amounts of oil reaching the shore had been relatively small.

But the impact of the spill would depend largely on how much hurricanes - through high winds and by raising sea levels in surges - would push the oil further into delicate ecosystems such as mangroves.

"If the spill stays in the open sea it will break down fairly quickly and its environmental impact is relatively small.

"The danger comes if it is pushed towards the coast."

Based on the experience of other oil spills, he said fisheries would return to normal in around a year - and could even be more productive if fish benefit from a ban on fishing because of contamination fears - while oyster and clam industries would take a year or two to recover.

He said the clean-up operation following the Exxon Valdez disaster off the Alaskan coast had shown areas left to themselves had recovered better than those subject to chemical clean-ups, while the 10,000 people flown in to deal with the spill also caused environmental problems.

And he said: "If it's in the open ocean, using chemical dispersants or burning can in certain circumstances cause more damage than the oil itself."

He said dispersants being put in at depth as part of efforts to deal with the spill were leading to oil settling deep in the ocean where it would not break up as easily, while burning the oil "looks impressive" but just put the pollution into the atmosphere.

And the scientists warned that the "nightmare" oil spill would be one that stemmed from drilling in the Arctic, where oil would only evaporate and breakdown slowly and would affect the "albedo", or reflective, effect of the region which helps maintain its climate.


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