Monday, 14 March 2011

Gulf Oil Spill

By Celeste Maxine Yates
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Louisiana State University Professor Ed Overton leaned out of a fishing boat and dunked a small jar just beneath the surface. "God what a mess," he said under his breath.
On the 20th of April an explosion erupted on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf, killing 11 people and injuring 17. The real damage was yet to come as gallons of oil started pouring out of the well. Since then, estimates of over 200, 000 gallons of oil are leaking every day. The oil slick is now the size of Delaware and Maryland combined. On shorelines the damage stretches 241 km, from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Grand Isle, Louisiana. It is now affecting the marshland that stretches along the coastland.
These marshlands or wetlands are home to about 34, 000 Brown pelicans and seagulls, which are right now, trying to dive through the oil-soaked ocean to get to their food supply. Thousands of migratory birds travelling from South America making their way north, traditionally stop off at the Gulf Coast for two to three weeks are now in danger. Sea turtles, manatees and dolphins are attempting to come up for air through the slick.
There are three species that have been highlighted as most endangered by the slick, the Brown pelican who recently was just taken off the endangered list, the Bluefin tuna and the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle. The explosion could not have happened at a worse time as all these species are now returning to the Gulf area for breeding, expecting their home to be the way it was when they left it.
One third of the endangered Bluefin tuna population use the Gulf as their breeding ground. Other fish who use the area for breeding also include the marlin and the swordfish. All of these creatures use the coral reefs as their food supply; a coral reef that is now being destroyed not by the oil, but by the chemical dispersants that BP is using to break-up the oil.
"Dolphins have washed up dead. Endangered sea turtles have been found with oil stuck on their corneas. Lifeless brown pelicans, classified as endangered until recently, have been carried away in plastic bags. Beaches in Grand Isle, Louisiana are splatter with globs of sticky crude. And when the moon rises over the coast there, the oil-soaked ocean sparkles like cellophane under a spotlight" reported John D. Sutter from CNN.
BP has released more than 700, 000 gallons of chemicals on the ocean to attempt to break up the slick and minimize the impact on the environment. Such a large amount of dispersants have never before been released deep into the ocean before. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and independent researchers are questioning whether the chemicals are not making matters worse.
"The goal here is to keep large slicks of oil from reaching shallow waters and destroying our estuaries, our wetlands and our way of life," EPA Official said. "It's a trade-off, but an informed one."
The dispersants are made up of a concoction of chemicals, which about one-third are proprietary - which means that even BP does not know exactly what they are spraying. The surfactants - a lipoprotein used in soaps, is the main purpose of the spraying, as it reduces the surface tension of the liquids, breaking the oil slick into droplets. The concept is the finer the breakdown, the easier it becomes for both large creatures like the Bluefin tuna and tiny creatures like krill to ingest the oil and surfactants themselves.
What the chemicals are also causing are oil plumes, big clouds of oil that are levitated about 1km below the surface, not quiet sinking but not floating either. These plumes have been reported as large as 9.6 km wide and 35.4 km long; millions of oil beads being carried with the current. To date at least 2 of the plumes have been discovered, one of which is making a slow movement towards the DeSota Canyon. The DeSoto is to the Gulf what a rainforest is to a land-based ecosystem. It is a deep erosional valley south of Florida, with nutrient-rich waters, making it the home to fish, coral and other organisms.
There are 2 substantial reefs in the gulf that are under threat. Originally scientists were concerned about what the oil would do to these reefs, but now the concern has shifted to what the dispersants and the plume would do, as they are significantly more toxic to the coral than the crude oil.
The oil plume could also choke off and kill coastal marshes in the productive Mississippi Delta and barrier islands. The other concern is the oil could create a massive oxygen-free 'dead-zone.' The bacteria that eat the oil also chew oxygen out of the ocean. Due to such large quantities of oil, the bacteria might deplete oxygen reserves until deep-water fish essentially suffocate.
At the time of this article (10th of June) the numbers of wildlife deaths have been minimum. However, environmentalists are expecting the worst to happen as the oil spreads. As the oil rig was in deep water, it will take time to reach shore and for the full damage to be seen. The other aspect is what will happen to the oil that stays in the deep water. It will also be difficult to give a true count of wildlife deaths as a lot of the deep-sea creatures will be carried in to the open ocean and not wash ashore. The other factor is that they might not die from oil directly but indirectly. The oil would only have to kill one link in the food chain for the whole system to be affected.
BP have tried numerous ways of fixing the leak, including putting a lid on it, injecting the hole with golf balls, tyres and junk and their latest attempt which is to siphon it. But in the end, only a relief well, expected to be finished by early August, would be able to plug the well. Drilled from an angle, the relief well has reached 12, 900 feet from the ocean surface and may reach a depth of 18, 000 feet.
"Clearly we are going to have to require that drilling rigs and production platforms have reliable back-systems. Right now, they are sorely lacking. Why else would BP be scrambling for any solutions to rein in or stop the gushing crude? I wouldn't call injecting junk into the blowout preventer to be a reliable system," Senator Nelson said.
As part of a coordinated response that combines tactics deployed above water, below water, offshore and close to coastal areas, controlled burns have been taken place to try and efficiently remove oil from open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife. In total, more than 100 burns have been conducted to remove a total of 2.8 million gallons of oil from the water a report said on the 31st of May 2010
BP has declared they will pay for all damages. On the first of June, they announced they had spent $990 million so far on fighting and cleaning the spill. Their deep pockets might reach an end however, as BP's stock has already dropped over 15%. The company has lost over $75 billion in worth since the oilrig exploded. Other companies that were involved in the spill have also felt the heat. Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron have all lost at least 30% in value.
But financially that's the least of their concerns. According to federal law, BP also faces a minimum fine of $1, 000 per barrel of oil spilled. On the 1st of June it was estimated that at least 20 million to 42 million gallons of crude oil have gushed into the Gulf. If the spill were to be contained today, that a total of between $480 million and $1 billion.
Bloomber News - 1st of June - reported that BP declared in its permit application for rights to drill in the gulf that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current one. Famous last words.
BP has announced they will pay for all damages caused by the spill, but the International Bird Rescue organisation responsible for cleaning up the oil on the surrounding wildlife, is taking in donations.
Celeste works for South African Biodiversity Media. To find more articles, news and information about biodiversity and environmental issues in South African, go to