Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – DROP # 1. The first drop in the ocean was an underwater oil leak, in the Frade Field near a well being drilled by Chevron about 100 miles offshore. The leak set off a feeding frenzy among federal and state authorities, self-proclaimed experts and of course journalists, who spilled vast amounts of ink on the subject.

The Curmudgeon, also known as Michael Royster.

First out of the box was the head of the environmental section of the federal police, one Fabio Scliar, who referred to the spill as an environmental “catastrophe” and promised criminal charges against those responsible. He is a candidate for electoral office.

Not to be left behind in the publicity derby, Carlos Minc, the Environmental Secretary for the State of Rio de Janeiro, did a flyover and called the site a disaster, claiming the damage to the environment was “uncontestable.” He is a candidate for electoral office.

Several “experts” waded in, including John Amos of the NGO SkyTruth, analyzing NASA satellite photos; oft-quoted media darling and oceanographer David Zee, analyzing the routes whales take through the ocean; and the ubiquitous Greenpeaceniks protesting outside Chevron’s offices. All of them agreed catastrophe was upon us.

There’s just one problem with all this doomsday rhetoric—it’s complete and utter rubbish. Neither Mr. Scliar nor Mr. Minc nor Mr. Amos nor Mr. Zee, nor anyone at Greenpeace, nor anyone anywhere else, has been able to point to one single solitary bit of damage to anything at all.

There was no blowout, no people were injured. The cementation operations to cap the well were carried out without incident, and the oil stopped coming out of the seabed, except for a few dribbles. More importantly, the oil on the surface, while being contained, was drifting southeast, meaning it was headed directly away from the Brazilian coast, not towards it. Two weeks after the event, there are no photos of oily-winged ospreys or other pathetic creatures.

Look at a map of the South Atlantic, see how vast it is, and try to envisage a few thousand barrels of oil floating out there in many trillions of gallons of water. It’s literally “a drop in the ocean.” And it’s continually getting smaller, because of air and sea currents, chemical dispersants and other clean up efforts.

So, where’s the damage? There’s a possibility that some whales might decide to swim that direction—but what direction? Where the spill is now, where it (or the little that’s left of it) will be in a week or a month? And just when do these whales migrate? None of the “experts” had an answer to these questions, but that did not keep them from bleating piously about catastrophic results.

DROP # 2. The second drop in the ocean is the fine that will be imposed upon Chevron, which (“never underestimate the arrogance of Big Oil”) has only now, after two weeks of tergiversation, admitted it was, in fact and in law, responsible for the leakage. Under Brazilian legislation, the maximum fine for such environmental violations is R$50 million. This, for the likes of Chevron, is pocket change, a mere drop in the ocean of the profits they earn from producing oil, both offshore and onshore. Even if ANP applies some contractual fines, up to R$100 million, the amount is still insignificant.


Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)


  1. I’ve been enjoying the coverage of this incident. It’s so obviously, “Let’s get the Gringo!”

    The experts will ultimately decide whether this small spill is the result of an error or omission on Chevron’s part or an unforseeable incident; not the politicians.

    What will be interesting, and tragic, is when Petrobras has a serious spill at a rig they directly operate in deep, pre-salt, waters. I have no doubt that Brazil is not, and will not be, ready for a real catastrophe.

    And then the tone will be different. It will be to defend Petrobras and attack the imported technology.

  2. Brown McPherson, you are so so right! In the year 2000 Petrobras spilled oil right in Guanabara Bay, more than 10 times the amount that leaked out in the ocean and … nobody did anything. A few stories this time have mentioned this spill, but most everybody is busy patting Petrobras on the back for having noticed the spill first, sending ROVs to get pix, etc.
    Petrobras will have a spill or leak or blowout some day, so we wonder whether ANP will then “temporarily” prohibit Petrobras from drilling anywhere. Bets?


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