A Gulf Too Wide: Oil & Water Don’t Mix
As Federal Government officials shut down fishing from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle because of the uncontrolled gusher spewing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama checked out the state of the environmental disaster which shows little sign of going away. It all underlines the need for the world to move strongly towards safer, cleaner energy, the global conservation organisation WWF said.
By Cain Burdeau and Ray Henry, for Associated Press (2 May 2010):
VENICE, Louisiana – Federal officials shut down fishing from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle on Sunday because of the uncontrolled gusher spewing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and the environmental disaster is still expected to take at least a week to cut off.
Even that toxic scenario may be too rosy because it depends on a low-tech strategy that has never been attempted before in deep water.
The plan: to lower 74-ton, concrete-and-metal boxes into the gulf to capture the oil and siphon it to a barge waiting at the surface. Whether that will work for a leak 5,000 feet below the surface is anyone’s guess; the method has previously worked only in shallower waters.
If it doesn’t, and efforts to activate a shutoff mechanism called a blowout preventer continue to prove fruitless, the oil probably will keep gushing for months until a second well can be dug to cut off the first. Oil giant BP PLC’s latest plan will take six to eight days because welders have to assemble the boxes.
President Barack Obama toured the region Sunday, deflecting criticism that his administration was too slow to respond and did too little to stave off the catastrophe.
Satellite images indicate the rust-hued slick tripled in size in just two days, suggesting the oil could be pouring out faster than before. Wildlife including sea turtles have been found dead on the shore but it is too soon whether the spill, caused by an April 20 oil rig explosion, was to blame.
Even if the well is shut off in a week, fishermen and wildlife officials wonder how long it will take for the gulf to recover. Some compare it to the hurricane Louisiana is still recovering from after nearly five years.
“It’s like a slow version of Katrina,” Venice charter boat captain Bob Kenney said. “My kids will be talking about the effect of this when they’re my age.”
More than 6,800 square miles of federal fishing areas, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Florida’s Pensacola Bay were closed for at least 10 days on Sunday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco says government scientists are taking samples from the waters near the spill to determine whether there is any danger.
Fishermen still were out working, however: They have been dropping miles of inflatable, oil-capturing boom around the region’s fragile wetlands and prime fishing areas. Bad weather, however, was thwarting much of the work; Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said 80 percent of the booms laid down off his state over the previous three days had broken down. He said boom along other coasts is breaking down also.
The Coast Guard and BP have said it’s nearly impossible to know exactly how much oil has gushed since the blast, though it has been roughly estimated to be at least 200,000 gallons a day.
At that rate, it would eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill — which dumped 11 million gallons off the Alaska coast — as the worst U.S. oil disaster in history in a matter of weeks.
“None of us have ever had experience at this level before. It ain’t good,” said Bob Love, coastal and nongame resources administrator with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “The longer it goes, the more fish and wildlife impacts there will be.”
Even if the oil stays mostly offshore, the consequences could be dire for sea turtles, dolphins and other deepwater marine life — and microscopic plankton and tiny creatures that are a staple of larger animals’ diets.
Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., said at least 20 dead sea turtles were found on the state’s beaches. He said it’s too soon to say whether oil contamination killed them but that it is unusual to have them turning up across such a wide stretch of coast, spanning nearly 30 miles.
None of the turtles have oil on them, but Solangi said they could have ingested oily fish or breathed in oil on the surface. Necropsies will be performed Monday.
The situation could become even more grave if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and flows to the beaches of Florida — and potentially whips around the state’s southern tip and up the Eastern Seaboard. Tourist-magnet beaches and countless wildlife could be ruined.
Obama has halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster. On Sunday he called the spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” and made clear that he was not accepting blame.
“BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill,” he said, rain dripping from his face in Venice, a Gulf Coast community serving as a staging area for the response.
WWF Reports (4 May 2010):
Recent offshore oil rig accidents and oil leaks – including the current Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico – underline the need for the world to move strongly towards safer, cleaner energy, global conservation organisation WWF said.
A world that seeks to source more and more oil and gas from deeper waters and more difficult and delicate locations also needs to factor into the equation the facts that we are also moving into territory where accidents are more likely, harder to respond to and have greater consequences.
“The Gulf of Mexico’s well-developed infrastructure and access to the most technologically advanced methods for responding to a spill offer the best possible set of circumstances for coping with such a disaster,” said WWF-US Vice-President for Arctic and Marine Policy William Eichbaum.
“Yet despite all these advantages, the crisis continues to worsen.”
It has been estimated that 400-600 species are potentially at risk as oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout begins to reach the US Louisiana coast at one of the worst times for migratory birds. The area is a vital wintering or resting spot for nearly three quarters of US waterfowl and now is the peak period of migrating and nesting, with the first chicks venturing into marsh ponds in the path of the oil.
The oil spill area is a major spawning area for the endangered Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, now also returning for their limited spawning season. Also under threat is one of the largest seafood industries in the United States, responsible for around half the US landings of wild shrimp and 40 per cent of its oysters, now also reproducing.
“The ecological and economic devastation now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder that offshore oil exploration and production is in fact deeply hazardous and we should think twice before opening up even more delicate and treacherous waters to development,” said WWF International Director General James Leape.
Among recent indications on how the oil industry is failing to adopt a hope for the best but plan for the worst approach, WWF has detailed how environmental impact assessments and oil spill contingency plans for exploration drilling in the inhospitable Chukchi Sea off Alaska dismiss blowout risks as “insignificant” and declined to analyse potential impacts or plan responses.
Oil is highly toxic to the marine and coastal environment and its impacts on wildlife and can persist for decades. Oil can still be found and damaged is still being inflicted by the worst US marine oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Deep Horizon, estimated to be leaking around 5000 barrels of oil a day, is set to surpass the Exxon Valdez quantity of oil early this week.
In late 2009, WWF was involved in assessing the environmental risks and damage from the blowout of the Montara exploration well head in the Timor Sea.
Though less than one tenth the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster (an estimated 400 barrels a day, against the current 5000), and being located in much shallower seas (around 90 metres/300 ft as opposed to around 1500 metres/5000 ft) the leak still took five attempts and 105 days to plug.
Oil spread over 90,000 square kilometres of sea and reef and into Indonesian waters and the global conservation priority area of the Coral Triangle.
Like the Gulf, the Montara spill area contained whales and dolphins, tuna spawning areas, turtles and seabirds.
“Unfortunately the real toll on wildlife will never be known,” said WWF-Australia Conservation Director Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who travelled by boat to the Timor Sea during the spill to overcome an official and company information vacuum.
“There just simply wasn’t enough effort put into the monitoring to really get a sense of the full impact. But we think that there were thousands if not tens of thousands of marine creatures like sea birds, whales and dolphins that would have come in contact with that oil and would have been affected.”
Dr Llewellyn, a marine scientist also familiar with the Gulf of Mexico, said Louisiana’s coastal biological richness came from the complex mix of sandy barrier islands and muddy marshes.
“You can’t clean mud,” she said. “If the oil gets into the mud the effects could be very long-lasting.”