Oil Spill Stories to Look for in the Coming Months

I am reporting to you today from New Orleans, where I am leading a three-day workshop for journalists in the Gulf of Mexico region who are covering the BP oil disaster.

Loyola University, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors have partnered with Poynter to put on this seminar, which is being held at The Times-Picayune. It's being paid for by a grant from the McCormick Foundation.

Connecting people's "stomach's & wallets" to oil disaster

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Dr. Bob Thomas, director of the Center for Environmental Communications at Loyola, urged journalists to find ways to "connect the public's stomachs and wallets" to the oil blowout. ("Blowout and "gusher," he said, are more accurate and effective than "spill.")

Thomas pointed out that while emotional photographs of dead pelicans and turtles really resonate with people, the lowly plankton that live in the Gulf are often forgotten. Plankton are an important part of the story because they're a vital food source for fish. 

"We don't know if the plankton who eat the oil microbes will retain the toxins, or whether it will pass right through them," Thomas said.

Other questions we can't answer yet: If plankton retain the toxins, will the poisons be passed on to their eggs? When fish eat infected plankton, will the oil bioaccumulate in the fishes' tissues and eggs? We do not know.

It is possible, Thomas says, that in the near future, fish populations may not appear to be affected by the oil because they are mature. The real question has more to do with what will happen in future generations and whether anybody can be held responsible years from now if there are declining populations. 

Thomas described another way that the BP blowout story hits the public's stomachs and wallets. Consider, he said, the fate of the pogie. It's a small, oily fish that is caught in the Gulf and then ground up to make fish meal, which is used in the poultry and domestic catfish industry. If the fish meal is contaminated, Thomas said, tens of thousands of jobs and key food sources far from the Gulf will be affected.

Determining "how clean is clean"

Mark Schleifstein, a Times-Picayune environmental reporter who's helping to lead the seminar, said one question that will emerge in the months and years ahead is: "How clean is clean?" More specifically, how clean must the beaches, marshes and water be before the government allows BP to walk away from the cleanup and recovery?

Schleifstein told the journalists that it may become difficult to know the real effects of the BP blowout. Eleven million gallons of oil spilled into waterways after Hurricane Katrina.

"They are going to be pointing back to previous spills and saying that was not us, that was these other spills," Schleifstein said. "They are already doing that right now."

The oil spill has shifted the public's focus away from the Katrina recovery efforts, said Schleifstein, an author and Pulitzer Prize winner. Church groups that once may have come to help rebuild homes are now calling New Orleans relief agencies to say they are no longer interested in Katrina-related relief. They say they want to work on oil cleanup and help the oil-soaked birds instead. There is very little need for that kind of help, Schleifstein said.

Using social media and the Web to track the disaster

Schleifstein said Flickr and Facebook have become important sources of information when covering the oil disaster. He looks at Flickr photos to see which government, charitable or private groups are working in the Gulf.

Twitter and Facebook pages, he said, are often vital sources of news releases and statements. He also uses TweepML to find Twitter lists related to the oil spill, such as this one from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Schleifstein says law firms are already starting to post oil spill-related information that could prove important as claims make their way through court systems.

Explaining how oil is relevant to people's lives

Andy Radford, senior policy adviser on offshore issues at the American Petroleum Institute, told seminar participants that the U.S. has a growing need for oil. He pointed to government estimates that show the Gulf of Mexico has more oil waiting to be discovered (44.9 billion barrels) than awaits discovery in Alaska. The Gulf, he said, produces about 30 percent of the United States' overall oil production.

Radford said it is important that the government allow deepwater drilling because since 2006, half of all new oil discoveries have been from deep water (deeper than 1,000 feet). Read this story about the Gulf's deepest offshore oil drilling and production platform, which went up and running just before the BP blowout.

A series of hearings by the Coast Guard, the National Academy of Engineering and a special presidential committee must all be completed before there is any chance of lifting the moratorium on deepwater drilling, Radford said. He pointed out that time-consuming "de-facto" moratoriums that could be caused by more stringent permitting requirements could also choke off drilling. 

"The drilling contractors are the ones who have to decide if they can ride this out or move out," Radford said, noting that they could move to places such as Brazil or Cuba. "They are looking forward now to next year, and if they don't see a sign this moratorium is going to be lifted, they will be looking for other opportunities." 

Radford estimated that there are fewer than 100 deepwater rigs in the world, meaning the rigs in the Gulf are valuable. Two of the rigs have moved out of the Gulf already. By some estimates, for every one job lost when a platform leaves, between seven and nine jobs are lost onshore.

Additional resources

These are worth a look:

  • SEJ has a special site called the Daily Glob, which tracks stories about the oil disaster.
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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