The Gulf Oil Spill: One Year Later, 'Nothing Fundamentally Has Changed'

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A dead sea turtle washes up on the beach in Waveland, Mississippi, May 5, 2010 (top). The remains of a sea turtle found in Waveland, Mississippi, April 14, 2011 (bottom). Mario Tama/Getty

A year ago, when I visited the Gulf to report on the Deepwater Horizon blowout, it seemed like the catastrophe America needed to wake up to the ongoing insanity of our addiction to oil and the risks of deep-water drilling.  After all, eleven workers died, key parts of the economy in Gulf states were paralyzed for months, the federal agency that oversaw offshore drilling was exposed as ineffective and corrupt, and the Gulf itself was fast becoming a toxic stew of crude oil and chemical dispersants.

Of course, I was wrong.

“Nothing has fundamentally changed,” says Doug Rader, Chief Ocean Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund.  There has been some chair-shuffling: BP’s bumbling CEO, Tony Hayward, was deep-sixed.  The old Minerals Management Service has been tossed aside, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management and Regulation, and has been talking tough about enforcing offshore drilling regulations.  The industry has designed new containment systems, that, in theory, could be helpful in capping another deep water blowout.

But there has been no significant action in Congress to reform offshore drilling.  Even the $75 million liability cap on damages related to a blowout or spill remains in place, allowing Big Oil to lay off the risks of catastrophe on U.S. taxpayers. 

The biggest surprise is the widely held view that the blowout wasn’t such an environmental disaster after all – like the Gulf just swallowed up five million barrels of oil and 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants and everything is fine.

It’s not fine.  Yes, commercial fisheries are thriving again and the shrimpers are back in business, but the notion that billions of oil-eating bacteria simply devoured the crude oil is "a pipe dream," says Rader. “The Gulf spill was an environmental catastrophe.  It’s just one we haven’t been able to fully quantify yet.”

The Poisoning: It's the biggest environmental disaster in American history — and BP is making it worse (August, 2010)

Certainly, bacteria in the Gulf – many of which have evolved to digest oil because of natural oil seeps in the area – did help to break down the crude.  “But it didn’t magically vanish,” says Tom Shirley, a marine ecologist at Texas A & M.  Shirley points out that there is still significant amounts of oil coating the bottom of the Gulf near the blow-out point, as well as in thick tar-like mats in coastal areas.  And many of the most toxic elements in oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), resist breakdown by bacteria and are likely to be taken up in food chain, where they can have lethal impacts.

In the Gulf, scientists are just now starting to see impacts on larger marine mammals. Since January, 155 young dolphins and small whales have washed up on Gulf beaches.  “That’s four or five times the typical number,” says Shirley.  “These deaths are not from toxic exposure to oil, but from chemicals that have gotten into the food web or passed down from mothers.”  And these are likely only small percentage of dolphin and whale deaths in the Gulf.  One recent study estimates that the actual number of deaths could be 50 times higher.  If that is correct, that means there were 7500 dolphin and whale deaths the first three months of this year alone.

Ditto with bird mortalities.  Only about 6000 dead birds were collected, but by some estimates, that’s likely to be only about 10 percent of total deaths.

Right now, a 1,000 square mile area around the blowout site remains closed to fishing, and the bill for what BP owes for damages in the Gulf is still being tabulated.  But it will likely be years before scientists understand the subtle effects oil and dispersants have had on the Gulf ecosystem, especially on disease resistance and reproductive ability of wildlife.  After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the herring population looked fine – then four years later it crashed (it still hasn’t recovered.) “There’s lots of potential for ecological surprises in the coming years,” says Shirley.

Unfortunately, the potential for political surprises in the coming years is low. “The biggest tragedy of the Gulf,” says Rick Steiner, a top marine scientist in Alaska who helped guide the response to the Exxon Valdez spill, "is that our energy policy today looks pretty much the same as it did before the blowout. The issue is not figuring out how to drill safely in deep water - that's not going to happen.  There will be more blowouts, more spills. The issue is how to get off oil.  And we obviously don't have a clue."