D.J. Tice: Well, it sure sounded bad at the time ...

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Updated: July 29, 2010 - 6:36 PM

A report on the vanishing oil slick shows us how much we don't know.

Forgive me, but this is a little confusing.

The New York Times abruptly reported in a front-page story the other day that the Gulf oil spill ordeal -- "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," in words used by President Obama and echoed by more or less everybody who has discussed this catastrophic, paradigm-shifting, ecosystem-destroying, life-altering calamity -- well, that it's just about over.

The oil slick is dissolving so fast, the Times said, that the "tricky questions" now concern "how fast the government should scale back its response."

No doubt the gusher of federal resources headed toward the Gulf will take even longer to cap than the oil well did. (Such are the political pressures at these depths.) But it's a touch surprising that scaling back the war-equivalent rescue mission is even being hinted at, considering the forecasts of never-ending doom the press and the experts have been pronouncing lo these many months.

This newspaper reported not long ago on expert fears that migratory birds such as loons might fall prey to an oily "deathtrap" when next they head south, turning the spill into a tragedy for "the entire continent." After all, officials expected that "vast oil slicks still will plague the Gulf this fall -- and perhaps for years to come."

But to hear the Times tell it this week, the Gulf region may be rid of visible oil before it is rid of Anderson Cooper.

To be sure, awful harms have already come to the people and wildlife of the Gulf. And the Times noted that "uncertainties" and "mystery" remain about the long-term damage the spill may do to sea life below the Gulf's surface. Yet preliminary reports "have found concentrations of toxic compounds in the deep sea to be low."

Even more unexpected are the reasons the Times story gives for the "rapid dissipation" of the oil. The Times noted, first, the Gulf's "immense natural capacity to break down oil."

Interesting. I don't remember reading or hearing all that much before now about the Gulf's immense powers of self-cleansing. I seem to recall more often encountering words like "fragile," "sensitive" and "vulnerable" to describe the regions and ecosystems at risk.

Another reason for the better-than-expected developments: winds from recent tropical storms, which apparently helped stir and break up the slicks. Yet not long ago experts mostly seemed to dread the storm clouds, sharing the view of one scientist who was quoted as saying high winds and waves "would very definitely turn an environmental disaster into an unprecedented environmental catastrophe."

Then again, maybe not.

And finally, the Times credited "the response mounted by BP and the government." This would be the response from the utterly indifferent and incompetent oil company, I guess, or the utterly indifferent and incompetent Obama administration, or both, depending on which flavor of demonization pleases one's palate.

It's possible this latest Times story has it all wrong. I don't know -- and that's just the problem. Like most Americans, I simply have to rely on journalists, experts and officials in a situation like this. But if the new information is substantially correct, it suggests that a good deal of we've been led to understand and expect about this event through months of saturation news coverage and big-shot pontification has been, well, imperfect.

Ever wonder why people are skeptical of the press? Or of scientists? Or of officialdom's claims of fully understanding vast mysteries like the economy, the environment, society? Ever wonder why people suspect that experts and poobahs don't know as much as they think they know?

Just look at the Gulf oil spill. If you can find it.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. He is at dtice@startribune.com.

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