Americas

The Gulf Oil Spill: Crisis of Unfathomable Consequences

A bird covered in oil from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

With oil continuing to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, which ocurred on April 20, has been described as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

By May 6, the BP oil spill reached the southeastern Chandeleur Islands of Louisiana, and by May 19, heavy oil landed for the first time on the delicate marshes near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

On May 23, government officials announced that they were directing all water flows from diversions along the Mississippi River out to the Gulf in a desperate attempt to keep more heavy oil from entering the Mississippi Delta. Officials fear that once oiled marsh vegetation dies, the coastal islands and coastlines it holds together will disintegrate. On June 1, heavy oil reached Alabama's white sandy beaches of Dauphin Island.

On June 4, Department of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano and National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen sent a letter to Congressional leaders warning that the response effort was in danger of running out of money within two weeks and needed cash from the federal oil spill liability trust fund, financed by fees on oil companies. The letter said that as of June 1, federal agencies had already spent $93 million on the spill response, which BP has yet to reimburse. In comparison, in the first quarter of the year, the London-based oil giant's profits averaged $93 million a day. In 2009 BP turned a profit of $17 billion.

On the same day Ms. Napolitano and Admiral Allen sent their letter, oil sheen and tar balls arrived with the tide on the Florida panhandle's white sands, including on Pensacola Beach. On June 5, the federal government closed an additional 565 square miles of fishing zones, with the total federal fishery closure now measuring 78,603 square miles, or about 33 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill, carried by the loop current of the Gulf Stream, is expected to pass along the shore of Miami Beach by the end of June, and some reports say that the fast-moving current will reach the shores of North Carolina a few days later. Once the Gulf Stream carries the oil slick around Key West and moves it north, there is no stopping the oil from affecting the Atlantic Ocean and reaching the shores of Northern Europe.

The warm-water current that moves at about 100 miles per day will drag a large amount of oil in its wake for several weeks, most definitely now that we know the BP cap on the riser pipe captures only 50 percent of the total daily output. And some scientists are now asserting that the latest BP containment effort may have worsened the leak.

One million gallons of oil are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico per day with no end in sight.

To add insult to injury, BP and its contractors, local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials have been repeatedly turning journalists away from the affected areas, including public beaches, limiting the flow of news about the spill.

BP is in the process of installing two relief wells, which will not be ready until mid-August. Even so, these two new pumping stations will only capture oil to be used by BP, but by no means alleviate or stop the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

Our shipping lanes have to cross the Gulf Stream in order for container ships to reach main harbors on the East Coast such as New York, New Jersey, Norfolk and Savannah. As ships pass through the oil slick they will carry oil residue with them, attached to the ships' hulls, bringing oil into our harbors and marshlands. It is safe to say that the Eastern seaboard and some of the beaches will also be affected.

BP is currently spraying toxic chemical dispersants on the leak at the source, at an unknown cost to the ecosystem, in an attempt to break up and spread out the oil. Planes are also dumping chemicals from above to prevent oil from reaching the shore in the same form that the notorious slicks did with the Exxon Valdez spill.

On May 24, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would require BP to reduce dispersant use on the surface by at least half, but would allow untested subsurface applications to continue. The agency said it was conducting its own tests of the toxicity of various dispersants after BP refused EPA's order to switch to a less toxic brand.

As of June 7, it was estimated that more than 779,000 gallons of dispersants have been applied on the surface and 317,000 gallons have been pumped deep into the water column in an effort to dilute the oil. The effects of using dispersants at such depths or in such enormous volumes have not been tested. Moreover, Corexit, the dispersant that BP is pumping into the Gulf, has been banned in the United Kingdom due to concerns that it posed too much harm to the marine environment.

While the environmental impact is incalculable, the impact on health could also pose a great risk, especially for pregnant women and young children. Pregnant women are more vulnerable to the toxic chemicals in crude oil as their cardiovascular and endocrine systems, in addition to the liver and kidneys, need to maintain a healthy balance to protect the health of both mother and child.

A developing baby, exposed to toxic chemicals, may be born with birth defects, deformities or endocrine problems. A newborn baby does not have a fully formed immune system, so crude oil contaminates in sand could seriously affect a baby's health and children's growth, and development may also be affected by exposure to the toxic chemicals. Additional long-term health risks of exposure to toxic chemicals also include cancer and neurological damage.

Dozens in Louisiana have already been hospitalized with health problems blamed on airborne toxic chemicals in the air a month after oil began to flood the Gulf of Mexico.

Those exposed to the growing oil spill include residents, cleanup workers and those providing relief aid. Thus far, 71 have been hospitalized due to spill-related health problems, according to the Louisiana state health department. And while some say chemicals in the oil itself are to blame, others speculate the dispersants used to break up the massive slick could be playing a role. Federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also report that many relief workers responding to the oil spill have been exposed to dangerous levels of airborne toxins.

While there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that oil may contribute to chronic conditions, there are no long-term studies looking at the impact of oil exposure. Regardless, many experts suggest that while minor symptoms have been attributed to the oil spill so far, the future may hold more serious health problems.

Lawmakers tore in to administration officials on May 25, saying the law that may limit BP's liability for economic damages to $75 million needs to be changed retroactively. The government would pay for damages in excess of $75 million, presumably with money from oil taxes.

The $75 million liability cap was enacted in 1990 as part of the Oil Pollution Act following the Exxon Valdez spill. The cap received much attention in recent weeks, and there have been several bills introduced to raise or eliminate it. There have also been proposals to raise the tax on oil so the government's fund, which currently stands at about $1.5 billion, could pay out up to $10 billion.

Concerns have been raised that raising or eliminating the cap will make insurance for offshore drilling prohibitively expensive, curtailing this country's oil production and raising oil and gasoline prices.

BP has repeatedly said it will not seek protection under this cap or money from the government fund and has provided written statements to that effect. According to Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Exxon said similar things after the Valdez oil spill, then litigated all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Wall Street bankers and lawyers have been talking about the possibility of BP filing for bankruptcy, as part of a merger that would enable them to walk away from its liabilities from the spill. According to Credit Suisse, BP's cost for the cleanup could run as high as $23 billion, not counting the approximately $14 billion in claims from fishermen and the tourism industry.

The oil-drilling lease was sold to BP by the George W. Bush administration in 2007 under its 2007-2012 Five-Year Offshore Oil Drilling Plan. The actual exploratory drilling was approved by the Obama administration on April 6, 2009.

After weeks focusing on BP, lawmakers and administration officials also took the opportunity to criticize Transocean, the company that owned the ill-fated drilling rig. In particular, they disliked Transocean's insistence in hearings in May that it was not responsible for the oil spill, then its filing in a Houston court just a few days later attempting to limit any liability to $26 million. The statute Transocean filed under was the same one used by the owners of the Titanic to limit their liability. Transocean's decision to pay out $1 billion to shareholders just a few days after the legal filing also disturbed some lawmakers.

A look at a Gulf of Mexico energy map reveals a massive, tangled network of 4,000 oil-drilling platforms and more than 43,000 miles of pipelines appear to consume the waters between Texas and Alabama—overseen by only 62 federal inspectors working for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), who also monitor drilling off the East and West coasts.

BP has the worst environmental and safety record of any oil company operating in America. Even after the 2005 Texas City Refinery blast that killed 15 people, BP continued to rack up safety violations. Despite the dangerous nature of all offshore oil drilling and BP's own egregious safety record, BP's exploration plan downplayed the possibility of a spill, repeatedly asserting that it was unlikely or virtually impossible. Amazingly, MMS approved BP's exploration plan without any consideration of the environmental consequences of an oil spill.

MMS is an organization of 1,700 employees that not only inspects offshore oil rigs, but also handles the leasing of all the acreage in the Gulf, as well as royalties the government collects from oil firms, roughly $13 billion a year. Some federal officials say that MMS, with a longstanding reputation for cronyism, has been mismanaged for decades.

The Interior Department's Inspector General's office recently pointed out that some MMS inspectors in Lake Charles, Louisiana, committed a series of ethics breaches over a number of years. They included allowing oil company employees to fill in their own inspection forms, accepting trips and sporting event tickets from oil firms, and illicit drug use while on duty.

A high-ranking federal oversight official familiar with MMS said tight ethics rules on inspectors must be imposed. That will include tough restrictions on gift giving and preventing inspectors from socializing with oil industry employees.

The resignation of MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum may turn out to help the new bureau find a more dynamic leader who can turn around the agency's culture. And the Inspector General's office, which scrutinizes MMS, will have to be more proactive in preventing infractions ahead of time rather than detecting them after the fact, the official said.

Now, a fierce debate between industry executives, regulators and elected officials is underway about whether the industry and the 130 companies that have set up shop in the Gulf are adequately regulated and what should be done to try to prevent such a catastrophe from recurring.

Obama has called for a commission to examine whether the government should have a more active role in both oversight of the oil industry and trying to tamp down future blowouts instead of leaving it to oil companies to repair.

Deepwater wells in the Gulf produce approximately 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, against total global output of around 85 million. Based on these numbers, the U.S. government can certainly afford to wait until oil companies can show they know how to plug a deepwater well.

In a huge victory for the Arctic, on May 27 President Obama announced he wouldn't allow Shell Oil to conduct exploration drilling in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer—but we don't know what will happen next year. In fact, Obama has proposed to open up both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to additional offshore oil drilling in coming years.

The coming weeks, and indeed years, will tell how the United States' worst environmental disaster has impacted the health of future generations, marine environment, tourism, oil and gasoline prices, and offshore drilling. "Drill, baby, drill" doesn't sound very pithy any longer.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.

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