Oil pollution: best when out of sight and out of mind

The BP oil leak off the coast of America has led Barack Obama to crack down on offshore drilling. But does this mean even worse pollution in other parts of the world?

Like the oil gushing for 56 days into the Gulf of Mexico, the BP story just won’t go away, creating new angles and new anger. Angles include the environmental impact, the economic effects and the question of blame. Anger is at boiling point among the people of the devastated Louisiana coastline, onlookers all over the world, and an increasingly exasperated Barack Obama.

Latest US government estimates say there is twice as much oil spewing into the ocean than previously thought – around 80 million gallons so far. It seems there is more oil gushing in an hour than officials originally said was spilling in an entire day. By the time the well is closed, it will probably be second only to the spill created by Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War when nearly 500 million gallons were pumped into the Persian Gulf to deter US invasion forces – by far the worst oil pollution in the history of the world. As an environmental catastrophe, the BP spill is already reckoned to be America’s worst ever.

One result of this is a renewed determination to find long term alternatives to oil, such as nuclear, wind, wave and solar power. But any results big enough to make a difference are likely to take a very long time.

So another major debate has flared up over the question of offshore drilling. Barack Obama has now refused to remove long-standing restrictions on drilling around parts of the US coastline. His Republican opponents have long argued that these restrictions are pointless. The BP disaster seems to be proof of exactly what Obama feared most – a massive, unstoppable leak just off the American coastline – proving that his safety concerns were right all along.

Hidden costs

But there’s a problem. Extraction off America’s shore is less harmful to the environment than extraction from many other parts of the world. Today America gets around 40% of its imported oil from the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Here pollution has combined with civic strife to cause an ongoing disaster. Worse; this is impossible to measure as records are suppressed by the oil barons. Some locals claim that more oil is spilt in Nigeria every year than has so far been spilt in the Gulf of Mexico and that the USA simply prefers to move its oil spills out of sight and out of mind.

You Decide

  1. Why do you think that the spill in America has received so much more attention than similar problems elsewhere?
  2. Is it, perversely, a good thing for those who worry about climate change that oil extraction carries more immediate and visible risks?
  3. BP has made billions of pounds in profit over decades, much of which feeds back into the British economy, including pension funds. Would a Britain with poorer pensioners but fewer links to environmental damage be preferable to a richer one with fewer such links?


  1. Work out roughly how much oil your families each consume over a year. (Some average figures for UK families are on the internet). Work out what it goes on and what you would have to give up to reduce it by half.

Some People Say...

“I beat the people from China. I win against China. You can win against China if you're smart.”

Donald Trump

What do you think?


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