Friday, July 15, 2011

BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today - 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many - even for folks up here in West Virginia - after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised "capping stack" that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 -- making it the nation's worst oil spill, and the world's worst accidental spill.
Photo from "spill cam" showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010
After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf's surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean's surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight -- despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of "mystery spills" that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:
NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 - July 15, 2011
The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen's groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what's really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we'll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.

3 comments:

  1. "And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to [fn]reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the [fn]saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth." Revelation 11:18

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  2. The Gulf ocean floor leaks like a seive all the time, natural oil seeps that have been going on for millions of years. Seeps occur all around the world, mostly on the continental shelves, and it is estimated that at least 8 Exxon Valdez tankers a year leak into the ocean.
    This natural oil leakage is the food for many organisms that form the base of the food chain, without it there would be far less life in the oceans.

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  3. Solon - natural seeps (at least 1,000 known in the Gulf) are relatively small, chronic leaks of biodegraded crude oil spread out over a large area in the Gulf, mostly along the shelf break out in deep water (>1,000'). They support unique ecosystems of organisms that have evolved to survive on hydrocarbon. Pretty cool stuff! I've been on the Gulf seafloor in a submarine to see these seeps up close.

    But there's a huge difference in toxic intensity between this low-level, steady-state leakage of biodegraded oil across a large area, and the sudden spillage of concentrated fresh crude oil in a small area that is typical for human-caused oil spills. We're working on some maps and visualizations that help illustrate the difference.

    The bigger issue isn't environmental, its economic: if we allow small leaks and spills to continually occur, without any penalty to industry, then we're encouraging sloppy and haphazard operations. That's a bad idea because a culture of sloppiness with offshore drilling will inevitably lead us to the next big accident, one that might actually hurt or kill people and cause significant economic damage.

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