Glenn Beck's sidekicks misleadingly cited the National Academy of Sciences during a discussion in which they suggested that “natural seeps” are evidence that “Mother Nature has a way of taking care of” oil spills. In fact, studies, including a report by The National Academies, have found that major spills can have “far greater” environmental impact than natural seepage.
Beck's crew cites natural seepage to downplay severity of BP oil spill
Beck producer Stu Burguiere: Natural oil seepage shows “Mother Nature” can take “care of these things.” Filling in for Glenn Beck on the August 6 edition of The Glenn Beck Program, Beck's co-host Pat Gray and producer Stu Burguiere minimized the potential environmental impacts of the BP oil spill. After stating that the BP oil spill was not as large as the amount of oil spilled during the first Gulf War, Burguiere argued that the “vast amount of oil” spilled in Kuwait “did little long-term damage.” Stating that half of the oil spilled in Kuwait “evaporated,” Burguiere and Gray continued:
BURGUIERE: Mother Nature has a way of taking care of these things because the main source of oil coming into our oceans are natural seeps. No one points this out. Forty -- I think it's 42 percent -- I have the number here somewhere -- 46 percent.
GRAY: Let's not forget oil comes from the earth.
BURGUIERE: Yeah, exactly. It's a natural product anyway. This is from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Quote, “Natural oil seeps contribute to the highest amount of oil in the marine environment, accounting for 46 percent of the annual load to the world's oceans.”
Gray and Burguiere distort National Academies research on oil spills
National Academies: Oil spills near shore “can pose significant risks to sensitive coastal environments.” Burguiere and Gray distorted the position of the National Academies by suggesting that the magnitude of natural seeps indicates the environment can handle large oil spills. A 2003 book published by the National Research Council of The National Academies -- parent agency of the National Academy of Sciences -- titled Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects, does state that "[n]atural seeps are the highest contributors of petroleum hydrocarbons to the marine environment" [Page 33]. However, the book clarifies that “these large volumes are released at a rate low enough that the surrounding ecosystem can adapt and even thrive in their presence” [Page 2]. The book also explains that releases of oil into the water resulting from petroleum extraction, "[a]lthough dwarfed by some other sources of petroleum to the marine environment ... are not trivial, as they can occur as large spills or as slow chronic releases concentrated in production fields. Furthermore, those releases from petroleum extraction activities that take place near shore or even on shore can pose significant risks to sensitive coastal environments." It further states:
The threat posed by even a minor spill in a sensitive area remains significant. Federal agencies, especially MMS, should continue to work with state environmental agencies and industry to enhance efforts to promote extraction techniques that minimize accidental or intentional releases of petroleum to the environment. [Page 3, emphasis in original]
Crude oil's ability to evaporate does not necessarily mitigate environmental impact. The National Academies' book Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects states:
Crude oils contain a wide range of compounds, from light to heavy; thus, they are affected by many fate processes. Evaporation can remove about one-third of the volume of a medium crude oil slick within the first day, but there will always be a significant residue. Many crudes will emulsify readily, a process that greatly reduces subsequent weathering rates. As a result, crude oil spills close to shore often strand and persist on shorelines, particularly on permeable substrates such as gravel beaches and sheltered habitats such as marshes. Crude oils tend to adsorb heavily onto intertidal sediments, with the risk of subsequent erosion of oiled sediments from the shoreline and deposition in nearshore habitats. Under high-energy, nearshore conditions, oil and sediments can mix and be transported to the bottom sediments. For spills that are transported offshore, the slicks eventually break up into fields of tarballs that can be transported long distances because they are so persistent. The water-soluble fraction of crude oils include a wide range of PAH. Dissolution from slicks and stranded oil can persist for weeks to years. [Page 114]
Report finds that, despite volume of seepage, major spills can have “far greater” impact
Santa Barbara County: “Evidence is clear that” major spills can have “far greater” environmental impact than natural seeps. A 2002 report by the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Energy Division discussing the effects of natural seepage and oil spills, including a 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast that released an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil, stated that “a comparison of the impacts of seeps and spills based solely on volume would be misleading. The evidence is clear that, far from being invisible against a background of seeps, major spills can have far greater and qualitatively different impacts on the environment than do seeps.” From the report:
A comparison of the impacts of natural oil seeps versus oil spills involves much more than determining the volume of oil released. Natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel introduce substantial volumes of hydrocarbons into the marine environment. Seepage rates may be on the order of 100 barrels of oil per day. Most spills associated with oil production offshore of Santa Barbara County have been small during the years since the catastrophic 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The Minerals Management Service estimates that total combined spill volume for the 841 reported spills between 1970 and 1999 was about 830 barrels. However, a comparison of the impacts of seeps and spills based solely on volume would be misleading. The evidence is clear that, far from being invisible against a background of seeps, major spills can have far greater and qualitatively different impacts on the environment than do seeps.
The county concluded: “Natural seeps and spills differ in that seep rates do not, on average, exceed the marine environment's capacity to digest the oil, whereas spills may exceed its capacity. Major spills overwhelm nature's mechanisms for processing the oil, in the short term. The consequences include severe oiling of shorelines and mortality to organisms that are ill-prepared to live in an oil-soaked environment.”