The Lasting Impact Of Deepwater Horizon
by Kiley Kroh and Michael Conathan
Two years ago an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico took the lives of 11 men and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. It took 9,700 vessels, 127 aircraft, 47,829 people, nearly 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants, and 89 days to stop the gush of oil. But the work to restore the ecosystem and Gulf economy has only just begun.
The regional oil and gas industry hasn’t skipped a beat despite claims from Big Oil and drilling advocates in Congress that the moratorium on deepwater drilling imposed in the wake of the spill devastated the Gulf economy. The New Orleans Times-Picayune found that oil-fueled economies in the Houma area are humming along just fine. And according to a recent Reuters analysis, Gulf drillers will be busier this year than at any point since the spill, adding eight new deepwater rigs and bringing the total count to 29, just shy of pre-spill levels.
But even though BP’s slick new ads show sparkling beaches and flourishing marshes, the perception that everything is fine in the Gulf is far from the truth. Last week Garret Graves, top coastal advisor to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the state “still has 200 miles of oiled coast,” including “very clear, retrievable oil in coastal areas,” and called the current conditions “unacceptable.”
While the Obama administration took steps to strengthen offshore drilling safety and oversight, much remains to be done. Tourism in the region has rebounded this year but the Gulf Coast is still struggling with the lingering effects of the spill and will likely continue to do so for decades to come. Here are five reasons the Gulf deserves renewed attention:
Congress’s failure to act
Two years ago the United States spent 89 days battling the single-biggest offshore oil spill in our nation’s history. But Congress hasn’t enacted a single piece of legislation in response. Ample proposals were put forward to restore the Gulf, reinforce offshore drilling safety standards, and raise the liability limit for oil companies in violation of drilling safety rules, which is currently at an outrageously low $75 million.
Congress must act to raise the liability cap, which could serve as a deterrent to companies that may be guilty of the same “failure of supervision and accountability” that led to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. As a recent editorial in the Tampa Bay Times explains, “while BP waived its limits under the current $75 million cap in fines for an offshore spill, a company with smaller pockets might not have the same wherewithal or self-interest to act similarly to repair the company brand.”
Additionally, it must enact the bipartisan RESTORE Act, which would dedicate 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines to be paid by BP and parties responsible for the spill directly to Gulf Coast states for economic and environmental recovery. It passed out of both the House and Senate separately, but they have yet to come to an agreement on a final version.
The bill would address many of the problems facing the region by catalyzing immediate restoration efforts, as well as provide the necessary funding to study the long-term effects of the spill on both the environment and public health.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the nation’s most productive fishing grounds, providing one-third of all seafood consumed in the United States prior to the spill. But in 2010, at peak response to the oil spill, about 40 percent of Gulf waters were closed to all commercial and recreational fishing—a huge blow to area fishermen, many of whom have yet to rebound. Louisiana oysterman Terrence Shelley recently told Bloomberg that total losses from the 18,000 acres of oyster reefs his family owns could reach $20 million by 2017, the year their oyster leases are projected to fully recover.
And while long-term damage estimates vary, a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences determined that over seven years, the oil spill could have a $8.7 billion impact on the economy of the Gulf of Mexico including losses in revenue, profit, wages, and close to 22,000 jobs.
Ultimately, no one really knows what the long-term impacts could be. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, for instance, the region’s productive herring fishery suddenly collapsed four years after the spill occurred, and it has yet to recover. Many signs point to Exxon’s oil as a cause of that delayed reaction.
An in-depth Al Jazeera investigation found ominous signs of the impact the spill may be having on the region and a frightening snapshot of what may lie ahead for Gulf fisheries: eyeless shrimp, crabs without claws, and fish with open lesions. Keath Ladner, a third-generation seafood processor in Hancock County, Mississippi, observed, “We’ve fished here all our lives and have never seen anything like this.”
Throughout the spill, BP cleanup crews worked furiously to ensure the majority of oil remained off of area beaches and out of the public eye. Yet the only oil we know was removed for certain was the amount directly recovered from the wellhead—17 percent of the total oil spilled. According to Markus Huettel, a benthic ecologist at Florida State University, “a staggering amount – he suggests 60 percent is a conservative estimate – remains unaccounted for.”
While the ultimate environmental and human health effects of the oil still emerging from the beaches and wetlands to this day is unknown, Auburn researchers found Deepwater Horizon tar balls contained 10 times more of the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, the leading cause of death from seafood contamination, than the surrounding sand and up to 100 times more than nearby seawater.
Another alarming discovery came in the “State of the Beach” report released this week by the Surfrider Foundation, which found that the mixture of toxic dispersants and crude oil has now weathered into tar product. The “unholy mix” is allowing potentially carcinogenic concentrations of organic pollutants to remain in the environment, and is absorbed by wet skin twice as fast as by dry skin.
Louisiana was home to 40 percent of the continental United States’ wetlands but experienced about 80 percent of all wetlands loss from the 1950s through the middle of the last decade. Wetland loss destroys habitats and removes natural flood protection and environmental services from coastal communities.
The BP oil spill shocked the Gulf Coast’s already compromised ecosystem, which will continue to degrade until comprehensive coastal restoration is undertaken. A new report from the National Wildlife Federation determined that 3,000 miles of beaches and wetlands along the Gulf Coast were contaminated by oil and that “oil contamination or efforts to clean it up can damage wetlands, killing vegetation and thereby causing accelerated erosion and conversion of land to open water.”
Restoration is an economic imperative as well. As detailed in the joint CAP-Oxfam report “Beyond Recovery,” large-scale investment in coastal restoration could be a tremendous source of employment for the struggling region, spurring the growth of new industries and creating nearly six times as many jobs as investments in traditional economic drivers such as oil and gas.
Deep-sea death and long-term implications
During the three-month spill, a staggering volume of oil spilled into the Gulf far beneath the surface. We are only beginning to understand the impact that will have on deep-sea health.
A study released last month by Charles Fisher of Penn State University and Helen White of Haverford College offers a clue. It determined the BP spill was “definitely linked” to “widespread signs of distress” and the slow death of deepwater coral within seven miles of the blowout site. The crew traveled nearly a mile below the surface, and one researcher said of the scene, “It was like a graveyard of corals.”
The long-term implications of widespread coral damage are extensive. Corals and other species at the furthest depths of the ocean often serve as barometers for overall ocean health and are critical components of the food chain.
Researchers throughout the Gulf Coast emphasize one critical point: It will be a long time before we know the full extent of the oil spill’s damage. That, however, does not mean comprehensive economic and environmental restoration should wait any longer. Recent distressing events, such as significant and unexplained dolphin mortality or the discovery of invasive species that could “wreak havoc” on the oyster industry, offer stark reminders that the environment and people of the Gulf continue to suffer and must be made whole again.
Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress. Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy, and Erin Gustafson, Energy and Environmental Policy intern, contributed. This piece was originally published at the Center for American Progress.