US: After the oil spill

Disturbing trends from the March 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska are being repeated in the Gulf of Mexico disaster, comments Charles Wohlforth in the Los Angeles Times. After spending around half a billion dollars, scientists paid by the government to study the Exxon Valdez oil spill over the last two decades still cannot answer some of the most important questions about the damage it caused or about whether Prince William Sound will fully recover.

We're in danger of ending up just as ignorant after the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, as once again, our legal, political and economic systems hobble scientists and pervert the search for answers.

The mandate of Alaska's government-sponsored oil spill research was to quantify the damage of the spill and guide decisions for restoring of the environment. After the initial chaos, lawyers for the state of Alaska and the federal government called the shots on a joint science programme. Later, a state-federal interagency council was in charge, although still with a heavy hand from lawyers and politicians. Most of the money spent for thousands of individual studies ultimately came from a legal settlement with Exxon.

The failures were built in by those controlling the money. The best scientists in the field recognised early on that to tease out oil spill impacts from broader changes in the ecosystem, they would need well-coordinated studies looking at many species and many factors in the environment. But lawyers rejected those projects, instead focusing on studies looking at damage to the most popular individual species in isolation.
Full commentary on The Los Angeles Times site

* Wohlforth is the author of a book published this month,The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our ability to rescue the earth.