The Fiction of
Oil Pollution
Our entire way of life is sustained by tankers and storage buoys; yet as soon as they wear out or are retired the media magically upgrade them into "time bombs." As repositories for the superstitious fears we have about our own technology, these hulks apparently need to be exorcised by gallant bands of Greenpeace warriors, who speed to the scene in Zodiac dinghies like priests ready to deal with a spiritual emergency. In the case of the Brent Spar the priests won. Shell aborted the plan to deep-six their empty storage buoy out in the North Atlantic and instead towed it to Norway to be cut into sections to build a dock extension at Mekjarvik. Marine scientists I spoke to at the time emphasized that Shell's painstaking environmental impact studies had all convincingly shown that dumping the Brent Spar was preferable to dismembering it on dry land. But, as so often, a scientifically informed decision was trashed by emotive reporting about the immorality of treating the sea as a dustbin.

This charge is not unjust; yet the interesting thing is how little irreversible damage caused by our pollution of the oceans we have been able to detect. Remove the source and the sea recovers. The odd Brent Spar, even two thousand empty oil-tankers, represent a mere fraction of the vast tonnage of ships lost worldwide in the past century, including all those sunk in two world wars, many of which carried enormous cargoes of oil and unpleasant chemicals. None has yet been shown to have provoked an enduring catastrophe as opposed to localized and temporary harm. People are strangely resistant to the idea that oil is as natural a substance as milk or honey, and that for millions of years it has been welling out through cracks in the seabed all over the world. In places it seeps through on land, too: it enabled the ancient Egyptians to coat their mummies with pitch and Nebuchadnezzar to asphalt the streets of Babylon in 600 BC. Oil seepage near coasts may even be commercially exploitable, as it is off Coal Oil Point in California. Natural seepage is estimated to account for 15 per cent of all oil pollution in the ocean. Compared to the oceans' total volume (roughly 1.37 billion cubic kilometres), even a million tonnes of crude --- the amount that might be spilled by the sinking of a large tanker --- are as nothing. All it takes is enough time for the dispersant actions of wind and waves, evaporation, and the inconceivable mass of microorganisms that thrive on petroleum metabolites to do their work. The oil will steadily disappear.

So will the hulks themselves. The Titanic is being visibly devoured by iron-eating bacteria whose existence no one had guessed at before the wreck was found. Meanwhile, virtually any object on the seabed, from a ship to an empty beer bottle, can become a habitat for marine life. I have watched miles of footage shot by cameras on ROVs of wrecks on the seabed and have yet to see any surrounded by a "dead zone." On the contrary, they are mostly festooned with life and are nurseries for fish. Almost anything can be colonized. The seabed beneath the world's great shipping routes is criss-crossed by trails of ashes dumped during the hundred years which ships were coal-fired. These have long since become "clinker communities" of sessile animals, corridors of life in places where it may have been scanty before. Life is ubiquitous in the ocean but always benefits from having somewhere advantageous to live.

I saw for myself in 1995 while aboard the Russian oceanographical vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh. The Keldysh carries twin Mir submersibles, two of only five such craft in the world rated to a depth of 6000 metres, which have since been earning their non-scientific keep by filmmaking and taking rich tourists down to see the Titanic. I was chronicling an expedition in search of two Second World War wrecks which had --- allegedly --- salvageable quantities of gold aboard, and was allowed a 17-hour trip to the Atlantic seabed five kilometres down, squeezed into a two-metre-diameter titanium sphere with the two Russian pilots. It is unusual to have a defining experience as late in life as one's fifties, but to stare for hours through the thick window of a Mir at a portion of the planet's surface never before seen was a rare privilege. A desolate landscape of ochre sand-dunes, it was nevertheless pocked everywhere with worm-holes and the tracks of holothurians. Yet it wasn't entirely primordial. Wherever an object such as an oil-drum had fallen to the seabed from the upper world, animal life was proliferating inside, outside, and around it.

--- From "Diary"
James Hamilton-Paterson
London Review of Books
23 September 2004
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