The BP oil spill is officially known as “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill”. It has been declared by experts and the U.S. government as the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry (Oil Commission, 2011). Although the disaster was confirmed to be an accident, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was avoidable. This paper will aim to not only illustrate the consequences of the spill, but also outline the reasons that it should have been avoided.
In short, an oil spill is the release or leak of liquid petroleum into the environment. Whether it occurs on land or at sea, a spill is considered a form of environmental pollution. Contrary to popular belief, oil spills are relatively infrequent. “The total number and volume of tanker spills have significantly decreased since the 1970s, which is in contrast to increases in maritime transport of oil (Burgherr, 2007).” Although infrequent, it only takes one spill to damage an ecosystem indefinitely. One spill is too many; and one spill can bring enormous attention to the industry or even to a specific company.
Offshore drilling is an inherently risky process. Aside from drilling below the ocean and extracting the oil, it also must be transported at some point. Drilling and securing the oil while out at sea is a fantastic feat in and of itself. Add that to the next step which is transporting the oil and it’s easy to imagine the countless processes that could go wrong along the way. In an industry where any mistake its one too many, ‘high-maintenance’ is an understatement.
Despite the dangers of offshore drilling, oil companies have become quite successful with the process. Over the past decade, 99.999% of oil shipments reach the United States without any problems (Forbes, 2014). An astounding rate of success for such a dangerous task. “More than 40,000 total wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, and at the time of the spill, 699 wells were operating at depths of 5,000 feet or greater, while more than 3,900 were in production at 1,000 feet or more (Forbes, 2014)”. At the time of the BP oil spill the offshore drilling industry was already elbow deep in the Gulf. The amount of wells drilled (40,000) would likely be surprising to the average American considering that many Americans were not even aware that any rigs were within 100 miles of the Louisiana coast (Oil Commission, 2011).
This expertise in the trade did not come overnight of course. The United States has been offshore drilling in stride since the 1920’s. However, it wasn’t until 1982 that a department was created to oversee its safety. This responsibility was stowed upon the Minerals Management Service, which was fittingly dissolved in 2011 following the BP Oil Spill. The department was under funded, under staffed, and ineffective (Deep Water Study, 2011). In its place three new departments were created – The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and The Office of Natural Resources Revenue. All three of these departments are currently active.
Although it seems obvious at this point, the environmental damage of the BP Oil Spill cannot be understated. To better comprehend the magnitude of the damage, the importance of the Gulf needs to be established. The southern coast of the United States produces over 1/3 of the nation’s seafood supply (Oil Commission, 2011). These are domestic supply figures and include most shrimp, crabs, and crawfish that are consumed by Americans daily. On top of that, parts of the gulf feature diverse ecosystems, swamps, natural feeding grounds, and even some of the United States best beaches for recreation and tourism (Oil Commission, 2011). From an environmental stand point, this was particularly disastrous for such a valued American landscape that had already been battered by a recent hurricane, as well as long term general negligence by oil companies. Aside from food and scenery, the Gulf is also one of the most solar efficient areas in the United States. “In general, swamps and marshes have the highest primary production of all the world’s ecosystems (Coastal Carolina University).
After the initial explosion, which killed 11 crew members, over 4 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf (Oil Commission, 2007). At the time President Barack Obama described the spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced (Oil Commission, 2007).” The explosion created a fireball that could be seen from over 30 miles away. It was a disaster in every sense of the word. One miles below the surface of the ocean was an uncapped wellhead, spewing methane and gas for 87 straight days. Active cleaning efforts would ensue for years to follow.
The BP Oil spill may have been the most disastrous, but it was far from the first one. Oil spills were already becoming a common occurrence in 1978 when Erich Gundlach and Miles Hayes published “Vulnerbility of Coastal Environments to Oil Spill Impacts” out of University of South Carolina. The two set out to create a scale which could be used to measure the vulnerability of an oil spill in any location. “The scale emphasizes oil residence time, with consideration of initial biological impacts (Gundlach, Hayes, 1978).” Generally, the expectation is the dryer the environment, the less vulnerable the area would be to an oil spill. For example, a 1-2 on the scale would translate to less vulnerability, a 9-10 would signal high vulnerability for the area in the case of an oil spill.
Figure A- Gundloch, Hayes
As it can be seen in figure A, the ‘ideal’ location for an oil spill would be exposed rocky head-lands. In that situation, the researchers suggest that cleanup would may not even be necessary. The environment would be able to cleanse itself. On the other hand, the worst place for an oil spill to occur would be a shoreline of salt marshes and mangroves. Shorelines like these are given vulnerability ratings of 10. As we know, the gulf coast features both of these types of shorelines. They are especially prevalent and were extremely effected along the coast on the states of Louisiana and Florida.
These types of shorelines are not only the most difficult to clean, but the research by Gundloch and Hayes also asserts that they are the most productive of aquatic environments. In general, marshes and swamps have some of the highest primary productivity in all of the worlds ecosystems (Coastal Carolina University). In particular, salt marshes are even more productive. Their inclusion of marsh grass, mud algae, and tidal plankton in their ecosystem adds to their already high influx of solar energy.
On the southern coast of The United States, these marsh ecosystems are even more valuable than their northern counterparts. Productivity declines northward as the colder months ensue (Coastal Carolina University). This means the marsh’s most southern ecosystems accumulate the highest amount of total energy. This is one of the reasons the soil and water look so plentiful along the Gulf. With extra nutrients supplied by the tide, the gulf coast features an enriched ecosystem along the shore. In short, the gulf was as vulnerable to an oil spill as it was environmentally productive.
When the BP oil spill occurred, the gulf coast was the land area that was primarily effected. Up and down the coast the beaches and marshes were visibly covered in thick coatings of oil. As Gundloch and Hayes suggest, cleaning mangroves and marshes effected by oil pollution is a difficult and tedious process. Not only is the terrain perfect for capturing and becoming clogged with oil, but the cleaning effort must also be dealt with delicately. Although it may seem easier to clean the area by fire or chopping away at vines and trees, both of these approaches would alter the ecosystem and its productivity for years.
The marshes of Louisiana suffered permanent area loss from widespread plant death as their rate of shoreline erosion doubled (PNAS, 2012). However, from the research by Gundloch and Hayes, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The permanent damage after the spill was to be expected. “Louisiana marshes, already experiencing elevated retreat because of intense human activities, induced a geomorphic feedback that amplified this erosion and thereby set limits to the recovery of otherwise resilient vegetation (PNAS, 2012)”. With the damage that was done, the Gulf ecosystems went on the slow path to recovery. Environmentalists feared, and sometimes predicted, an unfortunate fate for the gulf coast.
As of today, things are looking better on the coast (CNN, 2015). The long-term negative effects are still unclear and highly disputed. However, there is speculation by researchers that the Gulf is healing itself. Some even going as far to say “there is no data that suggests there are any long-term population-level impacts to any species (CNN, 2015).” That being said, it is important to note that environmentalists would generally agree long-term studies take more than five years after the disaster to be deemed complete. Although things appear to be improving, many researchers are still holding their breath. Even more of them find it hard to forgive BP Oil for the incident. Quick and educated response to the disaster may be what saved the coast, even so, the volunteers and researchers won’t soon forget the hopelessness that was felt in the initial days following the disaster.