In April 2010 the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well off the coast of Louisiana exploded, spewing crude oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Estimates of oil spilled into the gulf waters range from 170 to 180 million gallons. Eleven men died in the disaster along with extensive loss of wild species and damage to the ecological health of the region and its vital resources.
This past week the National Oil Spill Commission released its report on the disaster. It concludes that the problems found at the BP Horizon offshore rig are pervasive in the oil industry, citing failures as "systemic" and "likely to recur."
Since 1942 drilling for oil in the Gulf has been accelerating. Today, there are more than 4,000 offshore wells in operation, 819 of them manned. Some 27,000 rigs have been abandoned. The Gulf production is the source of 25% of domestic oil supply, 15% of natural gas, and 33% of U.S. refining capacity.
Since our entire society runs on oil, we have an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. That along with corporate mandates to maximize profits leads inevitably to environmental disasters. The consequences are not always easy to see.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Explorer in Residence, has been studying the damage from the effects of oil, methane, and two million gallons of toxic dispersant dumped into the Gulf region: "...bad news for the diverse, complex microbial systems that are killed by these toxic elements..." More than 15,000 creatures have been impacted.
The BP spill was the largest in a long list of spills around the world over the last 50 years, larger than the Exxon Valdez spill of 30 to 35 million gallons in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Spills off the coast of California and South America and elsewhere around the world are not uncommon. This one was the largest in U.S. history and in fact the largest accidental spill in world history. Only the Kuwait oil fires and spill of the early '90s by Saddam Hussein were larger, but that spill was intentional, dumping 336 million gallons of crude into the Persian Gulf.
Today, organizations such as Mobile Baykeeper, The Gulf Restoration Network, Tri-State Bird and Rescue, The Audubon Society and many others along with a wide array of government agencies are on the ground studying the effects of the spill. What is known is sobering. Hundreds of miles of shoreline are spoiled. Tens of thousands of square miles of Gulf waters are still closed to fishing. Thousands of birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals are dead. Oil has contaminated the region affecting pelicans, eagles, migrating ducks, geese and birds and destroying their natural habitats. Oil in sediment has damaged marshes and feeding grounds, inlets, and coastline. Oil and chemical contamination from dispersants has impacted everything from air quality to commercial fishing resulting in serious loss of tourism, motel and hospitality revenues, and jobs.
While many rush to assure the public that the food supply is safe, independent field research paints a different picture. Studies reveal that oysters, shrimp, crab and redfish are all contaminated with high levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, even when there is no visible contamination. Marine researchers worry about what they cannot see. The seafood looks and smells pristine.
And it is not always just the creatures of the sea that are harmed by drilling. Migrating woodland birds are also suffering. Yellowbellied Sapsuckers, a woodpecker that migrates each year across the Gulf of Mexico from the U.S. along with the Scarlet Tanager, hummingbirds, warblers, herons, cuckoos, doves, egrets, falcons, orioles and ospreys are suffering from a disorientation syndrome called "nocturnal circulation." Lights on offshore rigs confuse the birds as they cross, thinking that land is near. Encountering the lights, they circle the platforms endlessly until exhaustion sets in and they fall into the ocean. Scientists have observed as many as 100,000 birds circling just one platform where they fly around for hours until collapse. They die just 20 miles off the coast on their journey.
The Oil Commission report concludes: "Without fundamental reforms that hold the industry to higher safety standards and strengthens the government's authority to enforce more rigorous protections, a disaster could well recur." They conclude that oversight of a high risk activity is an essential function of government.
The oil is still in the Gulf even when the clean-up workers are not. No longer on the surface, it is now buried deep in the sand and mud at the bottom of the gulf, along the shoreline, and in the marsh grasses that line the coast. It will be there for generations. We need to consider safety and the threats to fragile ecosystems before deciding to drill in them.
Jeff Evans is a sales consultant for Simplicity Solar in Grand Junction. He writes on renewable energy and sustainable living issues and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.