A Shell oil leak, on May 12th in the Gulf of Mexico, has gone relatively unnoticed by the public. Despite the apparently moderate size of the leak, this spill demonstrates how smaller leaks can result in as much harm as larger spills. The lack of attention given to the spill means the real environmental impact is totally unknown – and this is just one of dozens of these smaller spills that occur annually. Not only the amount of oil, but the location, type of oil, and depth of the leak all determine whether any given oil spill will get attention from the press, public, coast guard, and even independent watch dog groups.

This particular spill is a perfect example of a leak that can go unnoticed by observers, but that may be quietly doing significant damage to the environment. The cutoff for the Coast Guard to consider a spill major is 100,000 gallons – this spill missed that mark by about 12,000. Falling short by a small amount means less oversight and less money for cleanup of what is still a large amount of oil spilled.

Further complicating matters is the fact that volume estimates are provided by the company responsible for the spill. Fines levied in response to such spills are calculated according to number of barrels spilled, meaning that companies have a conflict of interest in reporting the volume of spills. Lower estimates also limit the amount of press attention, and are less likely to result in increased fines for gross negligence. The volume estimates used as worst case scenario guidelines by groups like the Coast Guard come directly from these companies themselves. This means the companies responsible for spills are essentially left to calculate their own fines.

Further obscuring these situations is the difficulty of estimating the environmental impact. Estimates of volume by observers are calculated using a guideline for the total volume of oil spills which relies on the appearance of the oil on the surface. The margin for error is wide. Estimating how much oil never makes its way to the surface at all is next to impossible. The spill on May 12th occurred 3,000 feet under the surface. Because of the remote nature of the spill, and the numbers reported by Shell, no scientific sampling was conducted in response. This meant Shell’s initial estimate of its own spill went largely unchallenged. One of the few independent witnesses of the site during the days following the spill was the founder of the environmental watchdog group Vanishing Earth, Jonathan Henderson. Henderson expressed doubt regarding Shell’s estimate of 88,000 gallons, and reported seeing fish, seabirds, porpoises, and whales making their way through the leaked oil.

The primary technique for cleaning up such spills has been reported to often only recover 20 percent or less of oil on the surface. This ‘booming and skimming’ technique recovered 84,000 gallons of oily water in the case of the Shell spill, leaving observers to wonder how much oil was truly spilled to begin with.

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