Why the BP Blowout Won't Be the Last Tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico

The BP Gulf Oil Gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep sea drilling. But there is another, older, story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP's well is shut down, and it's another accident just waiting to happen.

As long as we demand oil,
oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it.

The first offshore well was drilled in fourteen feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business—which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid—maps show a dense thicket of infrastructure—and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Most of these pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands. This oil infrastructure has cost Louisiana dearly, and it will threaten the Gulf coast for years to come.

Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Paul Harrison, a senior director in EDF's Ecosystems program, explains several causes of the state's vulnerability.

First, the Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment and nutrients, no longer reaches and replenishes the wetlands. Along with the infrastructure that supports the offshore drilling industry, this has severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.

Louisiana's Shrinking Coastline
Louisiana's Shrinking Coastline
Since 1930, 1.2 million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost. (Maps: Courtesy Windell Curole, SLLD/Joe Suhayda, LWRRI)

Second, the straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology—the water flow—of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.

Third, the Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper revealing that the pipeline along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, much of it old and decaying, is extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents. In 2004, during Hurricane Ivan, sensors placed on the ocean floor showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before the next crisis erupts.

And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.

Lance Nacio's story vividly illustrates the impact of land subsidence in the Delta. For more than a century, his family has owned a couple of thousand acres of freshwater marshland, about thirty to forty miles inland, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His grandparents lived off the land—they were self-sufficient. They raised cattle for food, grew crops and fished, hunted duck commercially, and trapped animals like nutria, muskrat, otter and mink to sell to furriers. They carved dugout canoes out of large old felled trees. Photographs from the forties and fifties show a land so fertile that, as Nacio says "it breaks your heart to see it, compared to how it looks now."

This beautiful land is rapidly disappearing. Since Nacio inherited it 21 years ago, he figures about 30% has vanished underwater. As saltwater rushes into his marshes, the freshwater grasses die off and grasses that thrive in saltwater haven't grown in fast enough to stop the land from eroding. His land was once protected by barrier islands further south in the Gulf, but they have subsided, leaving him increasingly vulnerable. Now his land is also subsiding into the water, literally sinking from sight.


Lance Nacio recounts decades of wetlands loss that has taken his land and put the region at even greater risk of oil spill damage.

Nacio, who is 39 years old, has tried to adapt. In 1998, when roughly 60% of his land became water, he started running a commercial shrimp boat to make a living. Since the BP Blowout, Nacio can no longer fish. "We've been shut down for a more than a month here," he says. "The oil has contaminated the fishing areas."

It is hard to imagine how families like Lance Nacio's can survive. The BP disaster is already creating severe economic hardship for everyone whose livelihood depends on these oil-soaked Gulf waters. But even after the Gusher is capped, the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and canals will remain. The next Gulf tragedy waits its turn. That's why the urgent work of EDF and its allies to replenish and strengthen the wetlands that nourish and protect the Gulf Coast should become America's priority.

This magical, rich, fertile, wild and abundant land must be thought of as a national treasure. Losing it would leave us all that much poorer.

But there is a larger issue that we Americans must confront. Regardless of our collective fury over the environmental nightmare in the Gulf, as long as we demand oil, oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it. Now is the time to support energy and climate legislation that will shift our economy to safer energy sources. We can be energy-addicted. We cannot afford to be addicted to filthy fossil fuels.

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20 Responses

Comment from jamesxvi
June 7th, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I was born in the Mississippi delta (and have an expired Carte de Sejour to prove it), but the significance of this story extends to everyone, everywhere. I had no idea the scope of the risk and the extent of potential damage outlined here. I will post a link to this from Garvinweasel.

Pingback from Restoration and Resilience » A Post from Personal Nature: "Why the BP Blowout Won't Be the Last Tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico" - Blogs & Podcasts - Environmental Defense Fund
June 13th, 2010 at 12:39 pm

[…] Browning discusses some of the issues facing the Mississippi River Delta in her latest blog post on Personal Nature. Echoing points mentioned by Elgie Holstein and Jim Tripp in their piece on the […]

Comment from Dawn Naquin
June 18th, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I was born and raised near the mouth of the Mississippi River, in Plaquemines Parish, one of the hardest hit regions. I have seen the changes over the years, the river diversion, the loss of habitat which is the naturally protective barriers of this region. I have also seen the devistation of natural disaster in the region such as Katrina and Rita, and I also know as devestating as natural events are the marshes are much quicker to recover from a natural occurring disaster than a man made one such as the crushing, devestating, possibly never fully recovering from devestation as the BP spill. Friends and family lost everything in natural disasters and now face this unfightable, unwinable war of manmade destruction. A geographic treasure, a major player in the world's eco system, and last but not least a way of life for generations past and generations to come has been lost as a direct result of Corporate greed and lack of oversight.

Comment from James D Joy
June 18th, 2010 at 1:51 pm

We have one of the worlds largest oil reserves in MT, ND,WY,SD. Rumored to be more oil then there is in all of Irag. But our greed run oil companies will not drill for it because it is deeper then most other feilds, so the hole in the ground is going to cost the oil companies to drill. This is the excuse we here, it's too deep and that's costly to drill.
There is really no way to put a dollar amount on the damage that BP has caused in the Gulf. But I am pretty sure that it wouldn't take to sharp of a pencil to figure out how many feet deeper could they have drilled on dry land, with the money this has cost the country and it's citizens. How many of these deeper well could we have drilled , for the damages done to the entire eco system in the gulf.
IT IS TIME TO STOP LETTING THE OIL COMPNAY GREED TO BE THE ONLY FACTOR, IN WHEN AND WHERE THEY DRILL A HOLE.
James D Joy
Cody Wyoming

Comment from RiverRat
June 18th, 2010 at 1:53 pm

This is a wake-up call. We can complain, whine and weep about our condition or we can embrace change. I say: No more status quo. No more "but it's always been this way." Time to dump the SUV, install solar hot water, tighten up the house (energy audit please), intall energy efficient lightbulbs and change our ways. And NO EXCUSES. The choice has been brought to the front by BP. Now it's up to us to decide which path to follow. The one less traveled or business as usual.

Comment from Robert Schmitt
June 18th, 2010 at 2:05 pm

The Supreme Court decision to allow unfettered 'free speech' by greedy corporations gives them license to lie. They are very good at lying to enhance their image and stupefy the public with misinformation. What they do is akin to crying fire in a theatre; their 'speech' should be regulated, to suit the public interest. Rape of our environment is NOT in the public interest.

Comment from Alan Loeb
June 18th, 2010 at 2:35 pm

In reading these sad accounts I do not find any damage described that was not predicted decades ago. When I left Louisiana in 1979 all of the actual events these accounts describe was set out in precise detail (as well as the "doomsday scenario," which finally became Katrina). So the problem is not just the environmental impacts, bad as they are. The problem is equally our attitudes and the institutions we have built based on them. We have an economy that is based on disregard for the consequences of our actions. One can call the modern economy a miracle of ingenuity and productivity, and in a sense that's true, but it's also an economy that involves indifference to even its obvious consequences. Take leaded gasoline, developed in the early 1920s. The lead additive was known by its inventors to be toxic right from the beginning, but we did it anyway. So the miracle is in part a mirage. The Louisiana story is not just about an oil spill, salt water intrusion, or climate change; it's also about irrationality. I see lots of talking heads these days wishing to get the economy back on track, but I doubt that what they are thinking of is an economy that is any smarter than the one we had. I think the verdict is in on that.

Comment from Dnrsrdy
June 18th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Things will not change as long as the government is in bed with the oil companies. What a cozy couple they make at the expense of every american and our treasured land.
The level of greed is disgusting.

Comment from Bob Higgins
June 18th, 2010 at 4:21 pm

The core of the problem is corporate greed and lack of governmental regulation which is driven by an out of control oil lobby and tens of millions in campaign funds.

More here: http://bobhiggins.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/a-gusher-of-light-sweet-terror/

Comment from William Roberson
June 18th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Reading/hearing the laments about the Gulf disaster, dirty energy and climate change, (unwise) suggestions to drill on land, etc., I am reminded continually of a PBS documentary about an island off the coast of Denmark. Granted, it was a small (several thousand) population of farmers and average-income residents. But they had community meetings (with many initial skeptics), invested in first one wind turbine, then more as the turbines paid for themselves. Most added solar panels to their homes for heating water and added electricity. They've since further supplemented with biofuel and other clean sources. The point is, in a relatively short time, the island has not only become energy self-sufficient but is generating more than it uses, and their green-energy investments are quickly paying for themselves. In the near future, they will begin seeing a profit. Sun and wind are forever. These Danes do not have a lower standard of living than we in the U.S. They may be less energy-wasteful, but mainly they took action to convert over to energy from clean sources. We may still need gas and oil for some time, but the amounts could be vastly diminished by being less wasteful, improving transmission infrastructure, and most importantly, taking action on a large scale in clean energy projects. The projects themselves do not all need to be huge, like desert or offshore wind farms. The Danes showed that home by home, community by community, this changeover can be also be done by individuals rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Comment from Robert Simpson
June 18th, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Mike Tidwell documented not only the story of the disappearing Louisiana delta a decade ago in Bayou Farewell, but also the most logical solution. That is rerouting part of the Mississippi back to it's old route which kept the barrier land in place by replenishing it with the tons of silt carried everyday in the river. What's been done? Nothing….

Comment from Ann Louise Truschel
June 18th, 2010 at 11:24 pm

How many of you believe the Gulf tragedy can NEVER happen again? Even if it were GUARANTEED that this kind of disaster would not happen more than one more time, would that make offshore drilling worth the risk?
Of course, there are no guarantees. And, of course, there is no excuse for taking a risk again. We cannot permit any more offshore drilling.

Comment from notahypocrite
June 19th, 2010 at 2:10 am

If people were as concerned about these tragic events as much as they say they are then they would quit working for the greedy oil companies. That would put an immediate halt to their ways. I know that these people need the work but what's worse, being w/o a job for awhile or the complete destruction of our planet? We as "The People" need to do whatever it takes to stop ALL government and corporate greed or we will pass NOTHING on to our future generations. Why do we keep following the pied piper to the cliff? Will it be too late by the time we are finally "fed up" w/all this greed to get back on the right track?

Comment from Lauren
June 19th, 2010 at 4:55 am

I find it difficult to feel sorry for Lance Navio when I read "….and trapped animals like nutria, muskrat, otter and mink to sell to furriers." Um…what? Killing animals for fur doesn't sound very environmentally friendly to me.
I would like to add that I am in agreement with the article and am grateful to the people who are calling out these money hungry oil companies. I just hope this will start a revolution to end our dependance on oil. The evidence shows how it causes more harm than good.

Comment from Peter Laue
June 19th, 2010 at 9:24 am

I have a forein car that seats five people and carries some cargo besides. It gets 50 (fifty) miles to the gallon on average, going across country doing mostly 70 or better miles per hour. Not with the 5 people but with myself and a buddy and camping gear.
?? Why can't American companies make a similar car, I don't think they are ignorant but have other influences guiding their choices. Sell more cars when the miles per gallon requirements are raised, maybe a simbiotic relationship with the oil companies.

Comment from Trish Phelps
June 19th, 2010 at 11:54 am

911 was America's wakeup call, and it was an opportunity for us to examine our relationship to the Middle East and OPEC nations such as Saudi Arabia. We all know how that has gone.

The BP blowout is our wakeup call, and it is an opportunity for us to examine our relationship with energy sustainability and meeting the needs of our burgeoning population. I hope that this goes better, but I have my doubts about our corporation-owned government rising to the challenge. The solution to our energy problems must come from us, from a grassroots response demanding through our consumerism and voting for sustainability in providing for our energy needs. This means that we must be willing to shell out money to develop a new infrastructure for energy generation and distribution. This comes down to addressing greed, not at the big corporation level, but at a personal and individual level. We are all part of the problem and we must all become part of the solution.

Comment from redwoodrebellion
June 19th, 2010 at 5:02 pm

I believe that we need to both examine our relationship with energy sustainability as well as working at a grassroots level to make a point of dismantling the corporate ruling of our government. People who have never had their eyes open before, may be more ready to listen at this point. It is time to seize the opportunity to sweep the nation/world with concrete solutions, while people are in a state of shocked awareness.

Comment from Maxine Cook
June 20th, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I must say that the 'greedy oil companies' would not be holding us hostage at the pump were it not for the oil-hungry beings residing on this planet and our insatiable demand for crude to power our carbon-based lifestyles. Will we wake up now after this example of despoilment? This blown-out well in the Gulf is a sentinel event…..there will be more and worse to come if we don't heed this warning. Start making your views known to your Congresspeople; that we need clean, renewable sources of energy. I agree with Trish Phelps above, but not with Peter Laue…….electric cars are the way of the future Peter, not higher mpg. I also agree with William Roberson (above)….let's put windmills offshore instead of oil rigs. What are we thinking? We're thinking with our wallets instead of keeping the health of our planet and her future generations in mind.

We at Jolico Farm have been living a 100% solar and windpowered lifestyle since 1978. See how easily it can be done: http://www.jolicosolarpower.com/jolicofarm2.html

Comment from Judith Pecho
June 20th, 2010 at 2:57 pm

http://www.brasschecktv.com/page/872.html

Check out this video from a pretty reliable source. It is about a huge gas bubble growing near the ocean floor. It is a recording of a radio interview and so you don't have to watch it and can play it while surfing or reading your email. He had some great suggestion on what should be done by geologist, etc.

Comment from Peter Laue
June 21st, 2010 at 9:18 am

The higher miles per gallon are possible RIGHT NOW and with plug in hybrids also achievable NOW, we could cut the fuel requirements of our transportation substantialy–NOW.
I agree with Maxine Cook to a certain degree that we are being held hostage by the oil companies, but in any change of this magnitude you have to consider the support structures that are required to implement great changes in how we live. We seem to be quite complacent to have a war over oil rather than change our ways.

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