This oil leak is different
— Willy Bemis is Kingsbury Director of Shoals Marine Laboratory, collaboratively operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire, and professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell. Any views expressed here are his own.–
Earth Day 2010 will be remembered for the explosion and fire on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, from which 11 workers are missing and presumed dead.
One week later, the resulting oil leak now seems certain to become one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in United States history.
From the first reports of the disaster that afternoon, I have been extremely worried about this prospect. In addition to ecological damage, the economy of Gulf Coast communities will be changed. Oil and gas workers, fishermen, tourists, and all manner of coastal businesses are already being affected.
Yesterday, Louisiana opened its shrimping season early so that shrimpers can fish before the slick’s arrival. This oil slick is not like a typical coastal hurricane, where people can begin to assess damage within hours or days after the storm.
This is more like a stationary hurricane that threatens to cause damage for a long time to come.
In many ways, we are lucky to have escaped such a major leak up to now. Offshore oil drilling has always carried the inherent risk of oil pollution. And there have always been spills.
But this leak is different because it will be difficult to stop. It is not like the Exxon Valdez, where the ship’s size placed an upper limit to the total possible volume of the spill. A major factor this time is water depth: the leak is nearly one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, where remotely operated submersibles are the only tools yet able to reach the site.
High tech as this sounds, submersibles now deployed may prove no match for the volume of oil leaking from the well, now estimated by NOAA at 210,000 gallons a day (5,000 barrels a day). It may take additional drilling rigs and weeks or even months to stem the flow.
The newly declared federal state of emergency will mobilize new tools, but the emerging reality is that this leak is going to take a long time to fix. In the meantime, its scale continues to grow.
This leak is also different because of its proximity to the large and extraordinarily productive marshes and barrier island systems of the Gulf Coast.
Oil exploration and production in southern Louisiana had already crisscrossed these fragile habitats, contributing to the loss of coastal wetlands that makes hurricanes such a threat to New Orleans.
Now, petroleum contamination further threatens coastal wetlands. Miles of petroleum absorbing booms now being deployed may help limit damage, but the life of the Gulf of Mexico depends on these habitats, which provide nurseries for invertebrates and fishes that are the basis for the coast’s biological exuberance. Petroleum and animals – even microscopic animals – don’t mix.
Quite apart from pretroleum’s chemical toxicity, and the threat of biomagnifications of toxins through food webs, oil-contaminated animals have difficulty swimming, flying, eating, and breathing.
Videos of previous spills document the challenges of de-oiling seabirds: imagine the impact of a continuing slick of oil on crustaceans and larval fishes and all of the animals that depend on them for food.
Or consider the impacts to animals such as the endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles, now foraging in the area of the spill off the Louisiana coast. One thing seems certain: we can expect damage to coastal and oceanic environments and food webs to reverberate long after the oil leak is stopped.
This leak is different because of its national political implications. Already there is new opposition to President Obama’s recently announced plan to open portions of the mid-Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. And, in the midst of congressional consideration of cap-and-trade regulations for reducing carbon emissions, this unprecedented oil leak may force all of us to think more carefully about the true costs of our carbon-based economy.
When I first visited southern Louisiana in 1976, it was hard not to be impressed with the sheer size of the equipment needed for offshore drilling.
I saw great towers being assembled and erected, and there was an understandable national urgency to pursue new American sources of oil in the era of OPEC oil embargos.
But even in 1976, domestic onshore petroleum production had already passed its peak, which is why the industry was moving offshore.
Beginning in 1997, I spent many happy summers on Dauphin Island, Alabama, a sliver of an island fringing Mobile Bay that the oil slick may reach this weekend. Rigs constantly move in and out of the bay for servicing, looking like Christmas trees at night.
Now, as we pass the global peak in oil production, there is global pressure to drill in deeper and deeper waters. New deepwater projects in countries with less stringent environmental regulations and capacity to cope with spills could mean a global future of catastrophes and leaks such as this one.
Eighteen months ago, Rahm Emanuel echoed the words of Paul Romer when he said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Let’s be sure that this serious crisis helps America and the world realize that we are very near the end of the age of oil. And for the oceans, it can’t end soon enough.
Image shows an oil slick (C) pictured off the Louisiana coast, in this Terra satellite image taken on April 29, 2010. REUTERS/NASA/Handout