Note: I’ve wanted to write something for awhile now about the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m sure most are aware of the situation at this point as it’s received a lot of coverage in the mainstream press. While you might be following this ordeal pretty closely, I’ll attempt to drop some knowledge that you might not be seeing elsewhere. It’s a bit long, so buckle up, but I wouldn’t put it up here if I didn’t feel I had anything meaningful to contribute to the discussion. Without further ado…
50 days ago an explosion aboard the BP oil drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, would ultimately lead to its destruction and the death of 11 people. After losing power and burning for more than a day the thruster controlled platform sank causing it’s oil pipeline to break in the process. The real trouble was just beginning. In the aftermath of the chaos the oil well remained gaping open, relentlessly spewing oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico. 50 days later little progress has been made on stopping the flow and oil continues to pour out of the well and into the ocean.
Soon after this incident began BP estimated that oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 1,000 barrels each day. The oil giant refused to allow independent experts to have access to the site or their data claiming that efforts to examine the flow rate would only detract from attempts to stop the spillage. Not long after, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that the actual flow rate was closer to 5,000 barrels daily. By late May the official United States position was an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels every single day. The highest current estimates put the number closer to 25,000.
To get an idea of how much oil that really is envision a gallon of milk. Each barrel of oil is equal to 42 gallons. Taking a median estimate of 18,500 barrels would mean that 777,000 gallons of oil are pouring into our oceans every single day, for the past 50 days, bringing the grand total to just shy of 39,000,000 gallons. That’s a lot of milk. If that number alone doesn’t stagger you then maybe ifitwasmyhome.com will. This is a website where you can view the size of the spill as an overlay on a US map. Using my hometown of Fairfax, VA shows all of Northern Virginia, D.C., Baltimore, and the Philadelphia area to be engulfed.
The vast quantity of oil that has seeped into the Gulf of Mexico already outpaces the Exxon Valdez disaster making this the largest oil spill in US controlled waters. Incredibly, it is not even close to the largest oil spill of all time. That dubious honor belongs to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf which was flooded with 5-10 million barrels by retreating troops during the first war with Iraq in 1991. The current predicament would have to go on unimpeded for another 250 days to even come close to that figure. That is not to say that the current spill isn’t terrible, it is, just that the world has seen worse before.
It is immediately obvious that this spill could have disastrous ramifications for the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and the surrounding coastline. Any sea life in the area is in danger as well as coastal birds and the delicate marshlands. Pictures of birds and other animals caught in oil slicks have already been pouring in. The recovery effort is going to be massive and take a lot of time. The real question is whether or not these ecosystems will ever be able to fully recover.
Following the Persian Gulf spill more than 30,000 water birds died and fish populations were decimated. Now, less than 20 years later, scientists are finding that the wildlife populations have returned to pre-spill levels. One benefit that the Persian Gulf had was higher local temperatures which allowed some of the more toxic fraction of oil on the surface to evaporate off. Spills in cold places do not have this luxury which is a reason why the smaller spill in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez was so devastating. The Gulf of Mexico will benefit from this evaporation but not to as high a degree.
While heat can help evaporate oil from the surface it will not do anything to remove oil that resides underneath. Although most of the ecosystems in the Persian Gulf have recovered they are still finding traces of oil in coral formations and sediments of the coast that had seeped in from this remaining subsurface oil. Unless the current cleanup and recovery effort is thorough and all-encompassing it is likely that this will be an issue for the Gulf of Mexico for a long time to come. Considering the depth of the spill (5,000 feet) and the fact that scientists are already finding trace amounts of oil low in the water column the cleanup could be even more difficult than originally imagined. The official in charge of the cleanup operation, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, has admitted that they have very little experience cleaning up subsurface oil.
In addition to affecting the environment the BP oil spill could also have a significant impact on local economies as well as the American economy as a whole. Thus far the oil spill has directly impacted at least four states: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The primary source of income for most locals in these Gulf regions are fishing and oil drilling, both of which are in limbo following the disaster. The oil spill has limited or eliminated fishing in many areas and with the oil slicks spreading every day the potential devastation of fish populations could cripple these operations for years to come.
The other key industry for these areas, deep oil drilling, has now been placed under a six month moratorium by President Obama. In the wake of the disaster suspending those operations makes sense until a proper review can be conducted of safety procedures and regulations. Local officials are calling for the suspension of drilling to be lifted claiming that enough damage has already been done to their economies and that the remaining business is necessary for their survival. There is also concern that if the drilling ban continues that some oil companies will relocate their operations elsewhere and not return. This sounds like a viable concern but my hunch is that these large companies will always go where the money is greenest and if that’s in the Gulf of Mexico they’ll most likely be back if they do choose to leave.
The last economic concern is the potential impact on tourism. Local beaches are already seeing oil and the fear is that it could spread to areas in western Florida and beyond. Many of those tourist hot spots survive solely on the summer economy so losing any part of the beach season could be devastating. If this does become a reality it could potentially have a much larger impact on the overall economy.
One question that arises from all of this is what impact it will have on our goal to become less dependent on foreign oil (credit to Amanda for bringing this up in a recent discussion). The price of oil and our dependence on foreign supply is a complex issue and a full explanation is well beyond the scope of this writing. For an in depth reading on the subject check out this history and analysis of crude oil prices. A quick thing to point out here is that when a nation consumes more of a commodity than it produces it must then import the difference. This is the situation the United States finds itself in with oil. So, not producing more might not hurt us but it is also not helping us become less dependent on foreign supply.
The interesting thing to note about the Deepwater Horizon is that the oil well it was drilling had not actually gone into production and was still considered an exploration well. It was in the process of transition at the time of the accident. The act of losing that future production isn’t necessarily creating more dependence but it’s certainly not sending us the other way.
The current deep water drilling moratorium can also be said to have the same effect. As previously mentioned, local authorities have expressed concern that some oil companies may choose to relocate following the current suspension and possible future legislation. According to the US Energy Information Association crude oil production statistics, the Gulf of Mexico field (Federal Offshore PADD3) is responsible for nearly 1/3 of all US oil production so if this did happen it could be a serious hit to our production. However, this drilling moratorium (which you can read right here) is a pretty sneaky restriction. First, it doesn’t put a stop to any current drilling that is going on. Second, as explained in an article by The Seminal, the restriction is only on issuing permits in totally new drilling locations. This means that an existing site can go ahead and drill fresh bores if it wants to, possibly creating the same dangerous situation that started this entire mess.
Looking at this oil spill and the ensuing recovery it’s hard not to discuss whether the response has been appropriate. The talking heads seem to only be interested in discussing who is to blame and how the Obama administration is handling the cleanup effort. I don’t want to get too caught up in finger pointing but I do feel there are a few interesting aspects to discuss about the ongoing situation.
The response to this oil spill is multifaceted because one must consider the reactions from BP, the government, and the American public. BP is responsible for the oil spill and they have been trying to downplay the ordeal from day one. The problem with BP and every other oil company is that their decisions are all based on their bottom line rather than what’s right or even common sense. It might be wise for their stock price to act like this isn’t that big of a deal but when the destruction of an entire ecosystem is looming it’s time to face the music. Their various (failed) attempts to plug the spill have also proved that they had no plan at all for how to deal with an emergency of this nature. As a former engineer it boggles my mind that there weren’t contingency plans in place for an operation with as much risk as deep water drilling. BP has dropped the ball and have yet to pick it up.
A review of the government effort shows that they are doing a decent job but a true evaluation will only be possible when all the dust has settled. Federal presence has been large from an early stage and even included several visits to the affected areas by the President himself which is a marked improvement from the previous administration’s response to the Katrina disaster (not saying much). However, in my opinion, they could be doing better. The Deepwater Moratorium, in its current state, restricts very little drilling activity. Even the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, has gone on record saying he believes that all Gulf drilling should be suspended. Funding for local recovery efforts have been slow to materialize and to date BP has only been forced to pay for two miles of berms (offshore sand embankments) to protect the coastline. Local officials are requesting berms for nearly one hundred miles of coast but simply do not have the capability of financing such a venture without the federal government stepping in to foot the bill. Last week President Obama approved a plan to finance 35 miles of the berm plan but it just isn’t enough.
The real measure of federal response to this issue will come in the future based on what is done in the aftermath. Will Obama actually get tough with BP and force them to pay for the entire recovery effort? He’s currently saying all the right things but talking about taking some heads on TV and actually doing so down the line are two different things. The current corporate liability limit for such an oil spill is set at $75 million so will he ensure that legislation is changed to make sure BP pays for everything? Will the government come together to create stiffer regulations for the offshore drilling industry? There are a lot of hard questions that will need to be answered in the future.
Finally, there is the American public. There seems to be a large public outcry and most people are aware of the issue at this point. There’s started to be a lot more protesting and even some vigils being held around the country. It appears that a growing number of people are fed up with this type of shenanigans. Yet, every time I drive by a BP gas station there are people at the pump. Seriously? This company, through its negligence, has created a terrible environmental disaster, destroyed the lives of countless locals by wiping out their livelihoods, downplayed it, misled the public, and people still want to give them their hard-earned money? Drive 50 feet up the road, that other gas company is the lesser of two evils.
A quick perusal of BP’s environmental track record shows that it is arguably one of the worst in the world when it comes to respecting our planet. Raise your hand if you heard about their Alaskan north shore spill in 2006? The problem is they’re not alone, they’re just the current center of attention. All of the top three oil supermajors (Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, and BP) have had glaring environmental issues in the past. In 1999 a Shell tanker spilled more than 33,000 barrels of oil into an Argentine river. Exxon had the Valdez spill in 1989. The real question is how much is enough? How many times do these disasters have to happen before the public refuses to accept it? The greatest good that I can find in all of this is that it might finally be the tipping point where we decide, as a world, that we’re ready for clean, alternative energy sources that don’t destroy our planet in their creation or consumption.
At this point the situation is pretty grim in a lot of respects: for the environment, local economies, and the lives of local people who are directly affected by this disaster. There’s also a lot of hope for the future. Hopefully someone will find a way to stop the oil from spilling into the ocean. There’s hope that with a proper recovery effort and enough time the environment will heal itself like it has in the Persian Gulf. Lastly, there’s hope that this might be the true start of a transition to energy sources that are clean and renewable. Maybe one day this crisis will be viewed as the event that got the ball rolling rather than just another incident of environmental destruction. We can always hope.
First two images from Greenpeace, view more photos in their Gulf Oil Spill Flickr set. Final image from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries photo gallery.