As the world gets its first, live look at oil gushing from the well head in the Gulf, Ken Ringle of Nieman Watchdog weighs in on what he feels to be the media’s unhelpful exaggeration of the disaster’s potential consequences.

Ringle starts out by talking about his experience covering the 1979 disaster off the coast of Trinidad & Tobago, in which two massive oil tankers– the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain– collided during a tropical storm and hemorrhaged 287,000 metric tons of oil. That was the 3rd largest spill in history, but, purportedly through the use of dispersants and other techniques, the oil slick never managed to make landfall.

As for the damage to ocean life, I was having trouble finding much information. But as Ringle remembers it:

The calamity was bad enough. One ship exploded and sank, 27 people died and there WAS an enormous oil spill. But it never hit any beaches, never appeared to oil any birds, and ultimately simply disappeared. Most of it evaporated; the rest was consumed by oil-eating microbes in the sea. As near as anyone can tell, there was virtually no environmental damage.

I didn’t want to believe this could be true. It took aerial flights over the spill site and interviews with a dozen or more experts before I understood and reported that seemingly impossible truth.

How lucky! But then Ringle takes it a step too far.

The month before the oil spill in Tobago, the Mexican oil company Pemex had its Ixtoc I rig blow out in the Bay of Campeche, 600 miles south of the Texas coast. That resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history. The drilling platform burned and collapsed in an accident intriguingly similar to that of the BP rig off Louisiana. The well leaked from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day for eight months before it was capped. Yet resulting coastal damage was minimal.

Coastal damage was minimal? With all due respect, Mr. Ringle, the Ixtoc 1 was an infamous spill not only because of how massive it was at sea, but also because of the havoc it wreaked back home.

From the Guardian:

Ixtoc 1 owners, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the Mexican state oil company, could not cap the well for 10 long months, by which time an estimated 90m gallons of oil had escaped. Much of it evaporated, was dispersed by chemicals or burned off in the fire, but the remainder drifted in a greasy slick up to 60-70 miles long on to the US coastline, damaging wildlife, fishing and tourism. A report for the US government later concluded that the lost oil, equipment and clean up cost Pemex $498m – more than US$1bn in today’s money – and there were claims for damages of more than $400m, making it "probably the most expensive oil spill in history".

You can read that report from our friends at MMS here [PDF].

How bad was this minimal coastal damage?

Despite a big operation to use skimmers and booms to protect the coast, Ixtoc 1 damaged 162 miles of Texas beaches. Birds were badly affected with 1,421 oiled royal terns, blue-faced boobies, sanderlings, willets, plovers, herons, noddy terns, and snowy egrets rescued, while thousands more were driven away from their feeding and breeding grounds, many of them not returning for years afterwards. The impact on smaller species was – as so often – impossible to calculate.

I can get on board with the idea that media sensationalism doesn’t help and in some cases makes things worse. The (original) point of journalism is to present the facts to the public in an unbiased way.

As a writer for a well-respected journalism watchdog like Nieman, Ringle knows that, and I truly believe he’s trying to encourage more balanced reporting on the BP disaster with this piece.

Ringle’s argument seems to hinge on the fact that naturally-occurring, oil-eating bacteria are an important line of defense in an oil spill, and how evaporation is a key player as well.

But what about the possibility of the toxic dispersants killing off those bacteria? And even if they don’t, what about the fact that those toxins will be ingested by the bacteria, allowing the chemicals to make their way up the food chain?

And if the dispersants are supposed to ball up the oil into tar, how exactly does that promote evaporation?

The parallels between Ixtoc 1 and Deepwater Horizon are quite popular; a simple google search will prove that. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to assume the devastation could be all that different.

The bottom line: the media will report the story that attracts readers. We can’t expect anything more or less from them. But if we’re going to push back, let’s at least do it in an honest manner.