"We don't know."
That's not a sentence we, as Americans, like to hear. But after talking to scientists on the Gulf Coast and in other parts of the country about the oil gusher now more than eight weeks old, "we don't know" is something I heard a lot. And it's scary.
We hoped for better answers when we set out to do a careful scientific report on the effects of all that oil in the water for this week's special edition of my weekly news magazine program Dan Rather Reports. But reality is as murky as the water when you're trying to measure an unprecedented event in complex ecosystems. You don't get the concrete assurances that reporters, policy makers and the general public crave.
There are a lot of lessons we as a nation need to learn from the unfolding environmental catastrophe, but one of those lessons had better be a healthy dose of humility.
What will be the long-term effects of those large oil plumes, now called clouds, far below the surface? We don't know.
What is the toxicity of all that chemical dispersant being used at the site of the gusher and in the open waters of the Gulf? We don't know.
What will the oil mean for the tiny juvenile blue fin tuna that we hope will grow to hundreds of pounds and reinvigorate an endangered species? Will the use of dispersants help keep the oil off the shore or make a bad situation worse? What will the oil mean for the deep sea coral of the Gulf only recently discovered? Will the birds being so meticulously cleaned of oil live when they're returned to their habitats? How many animals have died below the surface only to have their carcasses sink to the bottom of the sea away from the accounting of science?
We don't know.
And there are countless other scientific questions without any good answers. That's not to say that all these questions are unknowable. It's just to say that they will require a lot more study. The truth is that what is taking place in the Gulf is an uncontrolled and unprecedented experiment. We know the results are bad, but we may not know for years, or even decades, how bad they are. Responsible scientific research often can't be rushed. And we better get used to that.
When I was growing up in Texas oil country, I spent some time working alongside the tough men who did the backbreaking labor of earlier oil booms. Many had little formal education, but when some geologist would come along and say, "drill over there" the whole process took on the aura of science. We now know how primitive those efforts really were. The modern oil business has worked hard to project a scientific confidence. Thoughtful engineers are the staple of their television advertisements.
We were told that there was a lot of oil in the deep waters of the Gulf. They were right. We were also told we could drill safely at those depths. I think the record is clear that those assurances pushed beyond the boundaries of our scientific knowledge. After we change the technology that led to this current disaster, can we drill safely at these depths? We don't know.
Not knowing should not be, necessarily, a reason for not trying. We didn't know if we could put a man on the moon or conquer polio. But in both cases, we respected the science. We based our measurements of risks and rewards on impartial data. Now it seems the facts have become political footballs. We have wonderful scientists in this country. We need to fund their studies and respect their results. We need to base our policy decisions on independent peer-reviewed research, not wishful thinking by industry "experts" whose points of view come with vested interests
One NASA scientist told me that we know a lot more about the surface of the moon than the sea floor of the Gulf. Another scientist told me that researching the ocean is so difficult it has been likened to flying a blimp over a forest at night and dropping down a hook, pulling up a twig or a leaf, and trying to surmise all the animals, plants and living organisms that call it home. These are honest assessments of the challenges by people who have dedicated their lives to studying the Gulf. It's far past time the oil companies, the government and all of us recognize how little we understand about the planet we call home.
Dan Rather's special report from the Gulf Coast, "A Gulf in Understanding", will air Tuesday, June 22 at 8 PM and 11 PM Eastern on HDNet. It will also be available on iTunes.