Oil Is Not the Problem

John Robinson is the sort of man whose views on matters scientific and environmental must be taken seriously.  His conclusions on oil spills, based on long experience, do not comport with environmentalist orthodoxy, to say the least.

A member of Santa Barbara—based Heal The Ocean, John Robinson is a former engineer who's been assistant to Dell Hess, Director of Science for Manned Space Flight, and who worked 'for a little while' as an engineer for Chris Kraft, legendary NASA Flight Director at the Houston Space Center during the Apollo moon landings.  John admits to also having done a 'little bit of work' for the U.S. Air Force in ballistic missiles as the space program was developing.

He left NASA. ¬ Astronaut Alan Shepard hitting the golf ball on the moon, John says, was the last straw; he wanted 'to get back to real science'  — and went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where, he says understatedly, he 'got really involved in chemical accidents and oil spills.'

Robinson was not only the chief scientist for the U.S. government during the Exxon Valdez cleanup, he was also 'chief scientist for cleaning up Saddam Hussein's messes' after the first Gulf War.  John says that he and his crew of about 120 'used to come to Santa Barbara often' over the twenty years he worked for NOAA. 'You've got the natural seeps offshore and we could practice on them,' he says.

'Practice what?' I asked him in a recent interview.

'Practice mapping where the oil is,' he answered, explaining that, 'We'd send people up in helicopters and try to map where the oil slicks were and give people training. We'd map the interaction of the oil with the coastline.

'Every six months or so we'd come down here with a new group of recruits and this would be the first oil [his crew] had ever seen on the ocean.'

Robinson retired in 1994 and, remembering Santa Barbara, moved here. He met Hillary Hauser, founder of Heal The Ocean, through his relationship with a mutual friend, world—famous marine biologist and National Geographic 'explorer—in—residence' Sylvia Earle (John had worked for her for a couple of years). 'As soon as Heal The Ocean was formed,'  Robinson says, 'I signed up. I think I'm their number—one member.'

The Dirty Truth About Cleaning Up After Exxon Valdez

My ears start buzzing when Robinson says, "I don't think oil is the problem many people think it is."

"Whoa, back up," I say.

'The Santa Barbara Channel has dealt with oil for eons, and that's one of the things we learned over the twenty years of working with the oil seepage out there. Certainly, oil in very large doses has been a problem, there's no doubt about that. Small quantities of oil in places that have never seen it, or areas where we get chronic doses, can also be a problem. But, certainly, the Exxon Valdez case was way overblown in terms of that one being a huge problem. It was a problem, but there¹s very little evidence left of the thing.'

The Solution is Worse than the Problem

Robinson explains that before they left the area his team convinced Alaska state authorities to set up nine locations that were not cleaned up, so they could monitor whatever long—term improvements were observed.

'For a period of years,' John says, 'those locations [that were left alone] were in much better shape than the locations that had been aggressively cleaned up.

'The very aggressive way we went about it — I have to fault myself on this, because I'm the one that directed it, turned out to be a much more serious problem than the oil was. We were killing more things — I mean we were really killing things with the steaming hot water that we were blasting on the shoreline; the oil wasn't anywhere near that effective at causing things to be killed, so that all of our sites were much better off for not having been cleaned up for a period of years.

'After a decade, things began to level out to where you weren't able to tell which area had been cleaned up and which hadn't; for a period of ten years though, the places that were cleaned up were in a lot worse shape.'

John, who attests to having been at 'many, many oil spills, maybe three or four hundred of them,' observes that, 'they are not the environmental problem that they are made out to be typically.' He says that in most cases, 'their effects are transient and there are no great long—term consequences.'

Robinson suggest that money spent on the type of problems Heal The Ocean is working on would be money better spent.

'Certainly, [human waste accumulation and septic overflow] are much more serious to humans than oil spills are. If the amount of money that's been thrown at oil spills over the years — billions and billions of dollars — had been directed at improving wastewater treatment we'd be a lot better off.'

Robinson also notes that, as far as environmental impacts go,

'For a while after the Exxon Valdez spill, there were more take—offs and landings at Valdez airport than there were (on a daily basis) at Chicago's O'Hare airport, [at the time] — the nation's busiest.'

The resulting environmental degradation of such intense activity in a pristine area like Prince William Sound, he suggests, need not have occurred if they had simply allowed nature, rather than man, to heal the ocean.

Perhaps the environmentalist movement needs to start heeding the advice Hippocrates gave to physicians in Classical Greece.

First, do no harm.

Timothy Lennon Buckley is Associate Publisher of the Montecito Journal in Santa Barbara County, California. Contact him here. 

John Robinson is the sort of man whose views on matters scientific and environmental must be taken seriously.  His conclusions on oil spills, based on long experience, do not comport with environmentalist orthodoxy, to say the least.

A member of Santa Barbara—based Heal The Ocean, John Robinson is a former engineer who's been assistant to Dell Hess, Director of Science for Manned Space Flight, and who worked 'for a little while' as an engineer for Chris Kraft, legendary NASA Flight Director at the Houston Space Center during the Apollo moon landings.  John admits to also having done a 'little bit of work' for the U.S. Air Force in ballistic missiles as the space program was developing.

He left NASA. ¬ Astronaut Alan Shepard hitting the golf ball on the moon, John says, was the last straw; he wanted 'to get back to real science'  — and went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where, he says understatedly, he 'got really involved in chemical accidents and oil spills.'

Robinson was not only the chief scientist for the U.S. government during the Exxon Valdez cleanup, he was also 'chief scientist for cleaning up Saddam Hussein's messes' after the first Gulf War.  John says that he and his crew of about 120 'used to come to Santa Barbara often' over the twenty years he worked for NOAA. 'You've got the natural seeps offshore and we could practice on them,' he says.

'Practice what?' I asked him in a recent interview.

'Practice mapping where the oil is,' he answered, explaining that, 'We'd send people up in helicopters and try to map where the oil slicks were and give people training. We'd map the interaction of the oil with the coastline.

'Every six months or so we'd come down here with a new group of recruits and this would be the first oil [his crew] had ever seen on the ocean.'

Robinson retired in 1994 and, remembering Santa Barbara, moved here. He met Hillary Hauser, founder of Heal The Ocean, through his relationship with a mutual friend, world—famous marine biologist and National Geographic 'explorer—in—residence' Sylvia Earle (John had worked for her for a couple of years). 'As soon as Heal The Ocean was formed,'  Robinson says, 'I signed up. I think I'm their number—one member.'

The Dirty Truth About Cleaning Up After Exxon Valdez

My ears start buzzing when Robinson says, "I don't think oil is the problem many people think it is."

"Whoa, back up," I say.

'The Santa Barbara Channel has dealt with oil for eons, and that's one of the things we learned over the twenty years of working with the oil seepage out there. Certainly, oil in very large doses has been a problem, there's no doubt about that. Small quantities of oil in places that have never seen it, or areas where we get chronic doses, can also be a problem. But, certainly, the Exxon Valdez case was way overblown in terms of that one being a huge problem. It was a problem, but there¹s very little evidence left of the thing.'

The Solution is Worse than the Problem

Robinson explains that before they left the area his team convinced Alaska state authorities to set up nine locations that were not cleaned up, so they could monitor whatever long—term improvements were observed.

'For a period of years,' John says, 'those locations [that were left alone] were in much better shape than the locations that had been aggressively cleaned up.

'The very aggressive way we went about it — I have to fault myself on this, because I'm the one that directed it, turned out to be a much more serious problem than the oil was. We were killing more things — I mean we were really killing things with the steaming hot water that we were blasting on the shoreline; the oil wasn't anywhere near that effective at causing things to be killed, so that all of our sites were much better off for not having been cleaned up for a period of years.

'After a decade, things began to level out to where you weren't able to tell which area had been cleaned up and which hadn't; for a period of ten years though, the places that were cleaned up were in a lot worse shape.'

John, who attests to having been at 'many, many oil spills, maybe three or four hundred of them,' observes that, 'they are not the environmental problem that they are made out to be typically.' He says that in most cases, 'their effects are transient and there are no great long—term consequences.'

Robinson suggest that money spent on the type of problems Heal The Ocean is working on would be money better spent.

'Certainly, [human waste accumulation and septic overflow] are much more serious to humans than oil spills are. If the amount of money that's been thrown at oil spills over the years — billions and billions of dollars — had been directed at improving wastewater treatment we'd be a lot better off.'

Robinson also notes that, as far as environmental impacts go,

'For a while after the Exxon Valdez spill, there were more take—offs and landings at Valdez airport than there were (on a daily basis) at Chicago's O'Hare airport, [at the time] — the nation's busiest.'

The resulting environmental degradation of such intense activity in a pristine area like Prince William Sound, he suggests, need not have occurred if they had simply allowed nature, rather than man, to heal the ocean.

Perhaps the environmentalist movement needs to start heeding the advice Hippocrates gave to physicians in Classical Greece.

First, do no harm.

Timothy Lennon Buckley is Associate Publisher of the Montecito Journal in Santa Barbara County, California. Contact him here.