This oil leak is different

April 30, 2010


— 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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The author states that the well is nearly two miles beneath the ocean’s surface. I have read that the depth is approximately 5000 feet. Since a mile is 5280 feet, isn’t this depth just under 1 mile beelow the surface?

Posted by rhoadie | Report as abusive

[…] now seems certain to become one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in United States history.  Continue Here. Categorized in DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill, Disasters, Environmental Disasters, Gulf Coast, Gulf […]

Posted by – This Oil Leak is Different | Report as abusive

It’s time for our elected leaders to step up and take some initiative at making real preparations for the future, in order to ensure that future Americans will enjoy even a modicum of our current standard of living.

This begins with the implementation of policies that favor: 1) the development of more efficient mass transit, 2) designing and re-designing communities so that walking and bicycling is not only possible but is encouraged, and 3) more than just a token effort at developing sources of energy besides oil and coal.

Anything less will be a disservice to both current and future generations.

Posted by Whiskey1027 | Report as abusive

Well said Whiskey1027.

Posted by LilyRam22 | Report as abusive

Whiskey1027 – Amen to that!

Posted by rhoadie | Report as abusive

Now a second rig owned by Mobil Oil Has overturned in Louisiana. Perhaps the President should return to his campaign position of no offshore drilling. Hell, it was one of the reasons why I voted for him!

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Louisiana voted “drill baby, drill” in the 2008 election, with the intention of having the Republican McCain administration open the pristine shores of California to drilling. Actually they have only been pristine since the Santa Barbara spill in the 60’s…

If this spill hadn’t happened at just this moment, Obama might very well have gone ahead with his drilling plan, which was probably conceived to try and find a center between environmental lefties and righties who have fooled themselves and the gullible into thinking this country can drill its way out of peak oil, foreign oil, high oil prices, etc., etc.

If Sarah Palin had a conscience she would drive down to Louisiana in Arnold’s Hummer with a rifle and put down oil-fouled endangered species for the cameras. That’s what she was trying to sign us up for, so she should stand by her principles now that we are reaping what she hoped to sow.

Posted by reconstructions | Report as abusive

Who wrote this article Patty Panic.

There largest oil spill in history happened in the Gulf off the Yucatan south of Louisiana.

It leaked millions and millions of gallons. It flowed full force for months before Pemex was able to stop it.

Yet the environmental impact was nil, because the Gulf of Mexico is one of the oiliest oceans naturally.

All over its bottom are oil leaks from the deposits. Ocean life in the gulf is much better adapted to oil, even lots of oil. The birds will be the biggest casualties.

Then there are the currents, the same ones that carried all the oil from the largest oil spill in history out to the ocean away from land – and while doing so endless prognostications that it would be the biggest disaster were heard far and wide.

Posted by jonathanseer | Report as abusive

At first they were like; “Everything is fine. There appears to be no leak.” Later “There’s is a leak but it’s a small one”, still later, “Well the leak appears to be five times worse than we thought.”, still later “We should be able to contain the spill.”, then later, “The spill is headed for Louisiana coast but won’t reach it for another 3 days.”, and later, “the coast is toast.” Some also rans; “We’re working on plugging the leak.” and now, “the leak is probably not pluggable.”

It seems likely that in about a month, we should be at the “OMG, we’re all gonna die! It’s an ecological disaster which threatens to end all life on Earth!” stage.

Posted by fwupow | Report as abusive

Rhoadie – you’re right, and we have corrected the mistake. The leak is at a depth of almost one mile, not two. Thank you for your post.

Posted by ReutersGreenBiz | Report as abusive

I am appealing to all engineering students particularly
at MIT Harvard and in Mexcio at Instituto de Monterrey and throughout the world as in India and China; please please comeup with some form of solution to at least tap the outlet of this 1.6 km. deep gushing of oil; I suspect as the volume increases the cap or tapping will have to withstand much more pressure lthan is being told to the public; it is beyond the technical expertise of BP and the US govt. they are now incapable of stopping it; the entire GUlf will be turned into a toxic area, threatening on one of the most critical water basins on the planet; we need your help now; doknt sleep, dont eat, doknt go to class; work on this emergency measure NOW; thanks

Posted by ellobon | Report as abusive

At least with Halliburton and Transocean and BP in this together, their legal teams should be unrelenting at uncovering the incriminating evidence that will point to the party whose mistake caused this unspeakable tragedy. They’ll need to have infinitely deep pockets to pay for the health and respiratory damages of all Gulf residents who will be affected by the inhalation of the impending petroleum blanket. It;s not just a smell…it’s toxic petroleum in the lungs after it goes through the nose.

Will Obama’s EPA declare the air “safe to breathe” like Christine Todd Whitman of Bush’s EPA did regarding the air in NYC after 9/11….air and particulate that fatally and chronically injured so many of the clean-up workers? I can’t believe she has the gall to comment about this here -03/oil-spill-mustn-t-end-offshore-drill ing-christine-todd-whitman.html

Posted by 5280hi | Report as abusive

[…] Read more from Shoals Director Willy Bemis. […]

Posted by GoShoals Summer 2010 » Gulf Oil Leak | Report as abusive

How about sinking a large oil tanker over the hole and using it to reduce the pressure from the oil leak. Pre-fit the top of the oil tanker to pump escaping oil up to other tankers on top of the water or use the opportunity to seal the leak around the tanker at the bottom.

Posted by lbardell | Report as abusive