Why the BP gusher won’t be the last tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico

The BP Gulf Oil Gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep sea drilling. But there is another, older, story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands — and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP’s well is shut down. And to make matters worse, there’s another kind of terrible accident just waiting to happen. Guest Blogger Dominique Browning, author of the new book Slow Love, and writer with the Environmental Defense Fund website has the story. The first offshore well was drilled in fourteen feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business — which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Oil industry maps show an astonishingly dense and complex thicket. Most of the pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands.

Just as we have collapsing bridges in our highway system, so, too, we have a decaying infrastructure underwater. It is aging, and as the marsh erodes it uncovers pipelines never built to be exposed to water, let alone saltwater. EDF senior director Paul Harrison describes an open meeting with the federal Council on Environmental Quality, where “an oil industry person got up and said he worries about the vulnerability of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) pipeline.”

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The LOOP carries about a billion dollars worth of material every day. The cost of plugging canals, building diversions, and bringing river water into the wetlands, is small change by comparison — but the survival of the wetlands depends on it. Only the power of the Mississippi River can build land and keep up with sea level rise. That is why we need mega-scale restoration of this landscape. We cannot afford to let this work become an environmentalist’s pipe dream.

The Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper, “High Sea-Floor Stress Induced by Extreme Hurricane Waves,” indicating that 31,000 miles of pipelines along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico are extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents [click here for news release]. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, sensors placed on the ocean floor, hundreds of feet deep, showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More than 1,000 reports of damage to pipelines in the Gulf have been made in the past two decades; more hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before another crisis erupts. Predictions are for a strong hurricane season this year.

Meanwhile, the vast oil infrastructure has already cost Louisiana dearly. Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Those thousands of miles of pipeline and canals — all that infrastructure that was laid down to support the offshore drilling industry — have severely compromised the resilience of the delta ecosystem.

The Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment, no longer reaches and replenishes the delta. The straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology — the water flow — of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.

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And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.

The BP disaster will have severe economic consequences for everyone whose livelihood depends on those oil-soaked Gulf waters. But the far greater disaster is the one that has been years in the making. The next Gulf tragedy is waiting to happen.

Guest Blogger Dominique Browning is author of the new book Slow Love. She writes regularly for The New York Times Book Review, Wired, and others.