At National Geographic magazine, where I am deputy editor and the chief editor for text, we have been hotly debating how to cover the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drill ship ever since the tragedy occurred on April 20. We knew it was a story we had to weigh in on, but our deadlines—we close most issues about three months before they reach newsstands—made it difficult to know when and how. But we took the plunge and decided to tear apart our October issue, which reaches subscribers in mid-September. Our challenge was to find stories and photographs that would satisfy readers saturated with blow-by-blow news coverage of the disaster.
Sadly, the BP oil spill is the story that keeps giving: At this writing, on July 15, it looks like the containment cap that has been placed atop the well is doing its job of holding back the gushing oil. But as BP readily admits, the cap is just a short-term solution. I am quite sure that the story will still be a moving target when we close the October issue in several weeks time.
We were lucky that one of our regular contributors Bruce Barcott had just returned from reporting in the Gulf wetlands when news of the disaster broke. He was the first in a number of freelancers who asked to cover the story for us. His angle was to go to the Louisiana Bayou and take stock of the situation there. We said yes, and he arrived in the wetlands in time to go to QueenBeeIsland with local officials to see the first of the oil-drenched pelicans. It isn't the toxins in the oil that kill these birds. Rather, encased in oil, they are in danger of being fried to death by the sun. We were also fortunate to have contributing writer Joel Bourne ready to dive into the intricacies of deep-water drilling and explain to readers why the geology of the Gulf makes it particularly dangerous for deepwater drilling.
Bourne's story is fair-minded throughout, but it is hard not to conclude that deep-water drilling is hazardous. But will his story and Barcott's and others like theirs be a call to reassess the deep-water oil rush? I would like to think so, but at least here in Washington, D.C. the outrage that was palpably felt in the first month after the spill seems to have dissipated. There's plenty of scorn for BP, to be sure, but overall the verdict seems to be that it is not realistic to stop deep-water drilling while demand for oil is so high. I can't quibble with that. Nor can I criticize the groundswell in the Gulf for continued drilling. The region needs the jobs. But it is disappointing that this terrible event in the Gulf has not set off some passionate lobby to stop our addiction to oil through the development of more alternate energy sources. I was hoping that the Deep Horizon calamity would ignite a new level of environmental activism, much as the Cuyahoga River Fire did in 1969. "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive of waste," wrote Time magazine in its report on the June 22 incident, when an oil slick and debris caught fire on a portion of the river in Cleveland, Ohio. "[The river] oozes rather than flows." Coverage of that event kindled a great deal of outrage over the summer of 1969 and it fueled resurgent activism in the environmental movement. That renewed commitment led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. I'm not seeing a similar spark this time. What will it take?
Victoria Pope is deputy editor and the chief editor for text at National Geographic. She spent a week at Colby in April 2010 as a Lovejoy Journalist in Residence. Before she joined the magazine, she was executive editor for U.S. News and World Report.