Gulf Coast marine scientists agree that the unfolding oil disaster could mean devastation beyond human comprehension. In an exclusive interview with the Wonk Room, a team of scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, MS, discussed the ecological impacts of a three-month blowout from the BP-Halliburton Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig, described as the expected timeline for “ultimate relief” of the leak by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. None of the scientists even wanted to attempt to imagine the coming devastation, because, as ichthyologist Eric Hoffmayer said, “oil is bad for everything” that lives in the ocean. If the leak continues for three months, about 100 million gallons of oil will have flooded into the Gulf during the peak spawning season of the region and the start of the hurricane season. Dr. Bill Hawkins, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, summarized the scenario starkly:
All bets are off.
Watch the discussion:
Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a shark specialist with the Center for Fisheries Research and Development, discussed the inevitable path the cloud of oil would take once it gets caught up by the gulf’s Loop Current that feeds the Gulf Stream. Dr. Hawkins found a limited amount of optimism that the “fractions of oil that are overtly toxic” are about five percent, and a lot of the toxic elements are “aerosolic” compounds — which would aid in dilution. Dr. Bruce Comyns, a larval ichthyologist — studying the early life stages of fish development — concluded that the worst-case scenario would be “devastating” beyond his ability to predict.
Historically, major blowouts of this kind have been stopped by drilling relief wells, a process that will take about three months at this site, the Macondo Prospect just off the continental shelf of Louisiana. Last year’s underwater Montara rig blowout in the Timor Sea took ten weeks to get under control. The 1979 Ixtoc I blowout took nearly a year to stop. BP is attempting experimental new efforts — containment domes, shutoff valves, and the like — to staunch the flow of oil, but none have previously been shown to work.
HAWKINS: All bets are off. I mean it’s an exposure-times-time kind of scenario. I don’t even want to think about that.
HOFFMAYER: I think oil’s bad for everything. To just add: It would go beyond just the Gulf of Mexico. If it gets entrained into the Loop [Current], it’s up into the Atlantic. And who knows where it’s going to go from there. As it moves around Florida, the next or another critical area would be the Florida Keys and the coral reefs we have down there. I don’t even want to think about that area being covered in oil. Once it works its way up the East Coast and potentially crossing the Atlantic, it could be far-reaching.
HAWKINS: Hopefully in that scenario there would be sufficient dilution, but you’re talking about some really fragile habitats as well. I shudder to think of a three-month blowout.
COMYNS: We’re kind of speculating, but obviously it would be devastating. Nothing’s ever really been seen probably quite like it, so it’s hard for us to tell you exactly what would the results be. We know it’s bad, we couldn’t tell you how bad. We’re just reacting to it as it slowly develops. If it was the worst-case scenario, I probably wouldn’t be qualified to tell you exactly how much devastation there would be. Obviously, it would be bad.