Strong opinions, weakly held

In defense of Corexit

I happened to pick up a dead trees copy of the New Yorker this week and found in it a massive article on the BP oil spill written by Raffi Khatchadourian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were working on a book on the same subject. In it, he brings the perspective that only the passage of time can give to a situation that was very hard to judge at the time.

Not only did the public not really understand the full scope of what was going on, but neither did anyone who was actively involved in the response to the spill. Khatchadourian’s article is what you might call the first revisionist history of the spill response.

As a liberal and an environmentalist, I found the article really valuable because it caused me to take a hard look at some of my biases and the role they played in my reaction to the response to the spill. A huge portion of the article is devoted to the role dispersants (like Corexit) played in the spill response.

Heavy use of the dispersants was highly controversial for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. The bad reason was that many people reported that Corexit was highly toxic and worse for the environment than the oil itself. That turns out not to have been true — Corexit is the most widely tested chemical dispersant available, and in the aftermath the EPA has found that it is less toxic than the oil being spilled. Fears (mostly unfounded) about the toxicity of the Corexit prevented it from being used as widely as it could have been.

The spill response team also started using Corexit at the wellhead to break up the oil as it was emerging from the blowout in addition to applying it using sprayers from the air. This had never been tried before and thus caused a lot of worry about what would result.

And also, nobody has used dispersants in the amount that they were used in the BP spill response. These last two fears were better founded. It’s important to look at the risks when you’re trying something new.

Ultimately, the dispersants were the most effective measure used by the spill response team, and the disinformation that was passed around about the dispersants probably reduced the effectiveness of the spill response.

Fundamentally, a lot of the negative impression of the use of dispersants resulted from people seeing the use of them as something that BP was for and the EPA was against. In truth, the spill response was coordinated by the most experienced and knowledgeable oil spill experts in the world, and the scientists working on the response ultimately agreed that using the dispersants made more sense than not using them.

That’s just one example of how people’s realtime impression of who was calling the shots affected public opinion, in turn making it more difficult to clean up the spill.

The article covers only one aspect of the spill — cleanup of the oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. It didn’t cover the events leading up to the spill or the efforts to contain the blowout. It makes a powerful argument that in the end, technocrats and experts are our best bet at getting the job done, and that public opinion and politicians mostly tend to make things worse.


  1. After reading your post, I dug the New Yorker out of the recycling bin (where Mr. Katxena put it before I had a chance to read it). It’s amazing how difficult it is to set aside my anti-corporate bias, and as compelling is the piece is, I find it hard to believe that BP didn’t get off way too easy. I feel a bit like those climate change deniers who just endlessly repeat that the evidence isn’t convincing. It seems like the more transparent the government and BP tried to be, the less they were believed. Thanks for pointing out the article.

  2. Well, I think it’s important to separate the spill mitigation (what this article was about) from the stopping of the leak and the events that led up to the blowout. I honestly don’t know what to think about the efforts to stop the leak (I’d love to read a similar story about that), and I think it’s pretty clear that BP was horribly careless in managing the well and that’s what led to the blowout in the first place.

  3. People tend to naturally minimize the complexity of problems when it’s not in their own field of study or expertize.

    Think about it – how many experts in your field do you know who aren’t trying to do the best they can given the information they have at the time? Likely not many. Yet we forget that when it’s not an area we are familiar with.

    People forget how complicated things are, not all answers are black and white. It’s humans making the tough decisions and sometimes the answer chosen is the wrong one. But less often is it deliberately the wrong decision.

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