In the aftermath of the BP oil spill, many questions remain. What will the US’ and international environmental policy look like going forward? What damage was done to the ecosystem and the people who tried to clean up the spill? Also, where has all the oil gone?

BP Rig
Credit: ideum via Flickr

Unfortunately, it looks like business as usual is bringing oil drilling back to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, this should come as no surprise to anybody who pays attention to the enormous amounts of influence and privilege which the oil companies enjoy. In fact, there are more rigs in the Gulf of Mexico now than there were before the April 20 Macondo well blowout and the ensuing oil spill. You can read about that here:

However, there is a spark of light in this otherwise oil-black chronicle. It turns out that huge amounts of bacteria that feed on hydrocarbons may have negated much of the environmental damage. When oil began leaking far beneath the surface, the population of bacteria that normally exist in small amounts suddenly exploded in numbers. This is because one of their primary food sources is hydrocarbons, which are the molecular structures that crude oil is mainly made up of. One theory holds that some or all of the remaining oil ended up being consumed by these bacteria. At the same time, this is only a possibility.

The supposedly safe chemicals which were liberally applied in the Gulf of Mexico to disperse the oil have caused sickness among cleanup workers. The effects to other organic life living in the ocean are currently unknown. Why is this? It's because humanity has never released so much oil dispersant on such a vast area in so short a time. The chemical in question, nicknamed COREXIT, was only approved for use as an emergency measure to clean up the apocalyptic amounts of oil. In the UK, it is actually illegal to use the same chemicals.

However, these chemicals were used even though there was a very real risk of hurting people, animals, plants, insects, and possibly even microbes and bacteria. You can learn more about this here-- it will be many years until we have a better idea what the damages were.

Still, much oil is unaccounted for. The oceans are a vast and mysterious place. Humanity lacks the technical ability to track millions of gallons of oil hidden deep under the sea. It is possible that oil still lingers somewhere, trapped by the bone crushing pressures of the deep ocean, only waiting until conditions are right to reemerge to the surface. Perhaps the oil found its way far across the world. Maybe a bunch of it has already surfaced and nobody has even discovered yet. We don't know.

In fact, I think the most important thing that we take away from this is that we don't know. We don't know what the effects of all of these chemicals that we are using our. We don't know if another massive oil spill is just waiting to happen. We don't know how failsafe the supposedly failsafe mechanisms used to prevent oil spills are. We don't know what the chemicals used to clean up oil spills do. The humility to admit the real limits of human knowledge is necessary if we are to prevent another disaster as bad or even worse than the BP Gulf spill. Otherwise we tread the much traveled path of hubris, risking our own demise.