Monday 9 April 2012

Deepwater’s Legacy in the Gulf after nearly two years on…

Tamsin Lee-Smith

An Oil Sheen in the Gulf of Mexico - Derek Hingle/Bloomberg News New York Times

For the worst environmental catastrophe in human history, the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon spillage was inevitably going to be controversial. The event is said to divide people into two categories: those who can’t forget, and those who refuse to remember.
Those who do wish to remember are relegated into ranks of environmental campaigners and the more persistent variety of Gulf coast residents, who complain their livelihoods are irrevocably worse-off.
Meanwhile those who don’t wish to hold on to the consequences of the disaster are usually assumed to be Republicans, deeply unsatisfied by lowered levels of drilling during Obama’s Presidency.
But two years later it is possible to observe an osmosis which is blending these divisions both for better and for worse.
What exactly is there to remember?
The crisis began on April 2010 when a geyser erupted onto and above Deepwater’s rig, 240 feet up into the air.  A combination of mud, methane gas, and water then ignited into a firestorm. At this time the Deepwater Horizon was drilling at 35,000 feet. Due to this unprecedented depth in excess of 4.9 million barrels of oil were discharged. This happened at an almost uncontrollable rate of 12,000 to 60,000 per day. 
As with all spills, once the oil stops its initial float towards the surface it sinks to the seabed. Whilst it was thought to still be rising up - after 12 weeks - the disgraced BP CEO Tony Hayward told reporters he was 60-70% confident that the well of oil would be successfully plugged.
His estimation turned out to be right. As a result, one year on "the impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," said geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who coordinated shoreline assessments in Louisiana.
By the end of 2011 year it was claimed that hundreds of miles of beaches had been reclaimed, with only a fraction still soiled: “Fish are edible. Jobs are returning.”
Those who won’t…
Delivering a speech in Oklahoma’s Republican oil country, the American President accused lawmakers of refusing to give his administration enough time to review the controversial 1,170-mile Keystone XL pipeline. He blamed Republicans for hesitations in the interests of the health and safety of those living in surrounding areas. 
A torrent of Deepwater Horizon warnings were provoked, and perhaps expectedly, these were rebuked.
“Under my administration” said Obama, “America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years.” “We are on track to meet very aggressive increases in terms of dependence on energy goals,” added his aide, David Plouffe. On their recent energy tour of the United States it was made clear that when it comes to the future of policy, a combination of ‘all-of-the-above’ is going to be pursued.
Those who will…
Recent research not only counters this surge ahead, it goes some way to clarify the true scope of the environmental catastrophe. Though local activism is still persistent, enough time has now passed for the results of in-depth studies to be undertaken and published.
Despite US government claims that most of the oil from the ruptured well had dispersed, a 35km-long plume of oil deep in the waters has now been discovered.  The oil, which includes toxic components such as benzine, could cause genetic problems for marine life even at low concentrations.
And last month, a study showed that the oil spill had damaged sea floor coral as far as 7 miles away from the wellhead site. Meanwhile, the number of dead dolphins found stranded on the coast close to the spill has dramatically increased.
The costs of the event for BP have exceeded $8 billion, (that is more than the whole of DECC’s 2012 budget).  They are easy to quantify in comparison to the political fallout and environmental consequences. Speights of political opportunism in election years happen; but what is so objectionable in this case is that the most important set of consequences are the most difficult to ascertain, and their integrity is therefore more challenging to protect.