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Is burning leaked oil worth the costs?

In this handout from NASA, an oil slick from the sunk Deepwater Horizon drilling platform is seen off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Today in what can only be described as an act of environmental desperation, the U.S. Coast Guard began setting fire to parts of a giant oil slick that continues to spread just off the Louisiana coast. The so-called "controlled burn" and the acrid black smoke it will send into the atmosphere will, in the best-case scenario, keep the oil from drifting onto coastal estuaries and wetlands.

Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports the clean-up crews have no easy choices.


JOHN DIMSDALE: So far, the well's owner, British Petroleum, is paying for the cleanup. But the Coast Guard's Mary Landry, who is coordinating the burn, says in the end others will also bear the costs.

MARY Landry: We've got all the tools, all the resources for the appropriate oversight from federal, state, and I would tell you the industry has brought all the resources to bear.

The American Petroleum Institute's Allison Nyholm says burning the oil is preferable to letting it reach land.

ALLISON NYHOLM: You are able to take care of 90 to 98 percent of the oil. Then what is left is a waxy sheen that can be skimmed off the top.

And Nyholm says burning should work well in this case.

NYHOLM: This oil is light, sweet crude. It's excellent for this type of burning. So it's of the perfect type to deal with it in a very rapid, quick manner.

But burning will cause air pollution, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other toxic particles.

JACKIE SAVITZ: This is a sad state of affairs because it's a real lose-lose proposition.

Jackie Savitz is a senior scientist with the conservation group Oceana. She says burning is better than letting the oil spread to fisheries and marine habitats. Already stressed populations of Bluefin tuna, grouper and snapper are spawning now. The oil spill threatens to eat away at the $200-million-a-year Gulf fishing industry.

SAVITZ: We're losing oil, you know, which is a shame because oil is a very valuable resource. There's a huge cost associated with that that really we all pay because this is a common resource for all Americans.

Until the well can be capped, it continues to spew 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Wow, I didn't realize the lobbyists over at the Petroleum Institute were suddenly engineers and scientists with the experience of fighting oil disasters like this one with enough expertise to actually make such confident statements that "90 to 98%" of the oil will be taken care of. I imagine their time would be better spent coming up with another catch phrase, like "Burn, Baby, burn." Oh, wait, that one was taken by the Enron traders (see Smartest Guys in the Room).

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