Posts in 'BP Oil Disaster'

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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Connect the Dots: Oil in the Gulf and Floods in Tennessee

I went to Franklin, Tennessee for a visit that was supposed to end last Saturday, but I was marooned by flooding from the unprecedented deluge that pummeled this part of the country over the weekend. We got more than 15 inches in two days—a record high. The rain came stunningly fast and furious, buckets of water pouring down from the heavens. Within hours, dry creek beds became raging rivers. As a friend and I were driving from downtown Nashville at the start of the storm, it began to dawn on us that things were much worse than the prediction of "severe thunderstorms" might indicate.

Will we learn from the terrible disaster in the Gulf?

Winds were gusting wildly, trees were toppling across roads, water was spilling over banks, asphalt was crumbling, and cars around us were stalled. We got to a dip in one street and saw a woman pacing back and forth, her hands folded in prayer in front of her face. A man just ahead of us had been told not to drive through the water spilling across the road, she said, but he had ignored the warning. "His car washed away. He's hangin' in the top of a tree, hangin' on for dear life," she said. "Pray for him. Please."

I don't know if he was rescued, or if he became one of the 24 people who died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi when rivers flashed through towns, washed away cars, houses and commercial buildings, and buckled bridges. When I wasn't watching the downpour or warily eying the creek behind my friends' house, I was following the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, what had been described by BP as a containable spill coming from the sinking Deepwater Horizon rig had become three "leaks"—a maddening description.

May 4th satellite image of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Source: NASA

What's going on cannot possibly be called a leak, nor can it be called a spill. Leaks are gradual and spills imply the emptying of a container. Instead, what we have are underwater geysers of oil that are spewing rust-colored crude; and there is no known end to the supply. As of Monday, BP estimated that 210,000 gallons a day—five times the company's original projection—were spilling into the Gulf's tricky, frigid waters. The oil slick on the surface covers more than 1,800 square miles and Interior Department officials are estimating it may take 90 days to stop the flow if BP has to drill a "relief" well to intersect and cap the out-of-control well.

The weather has not been cooperating with containment efforts, which were slow off the mark. As of Wednesday, BP said 100 miles of floating booms had been laid out to keep the oil from spreading, but they were severely compromised, and outright destroyed in places, by winds and waves. Eighty percent of the booms protecting Alabama's coast are damaged. Meanwhile, crews are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil to break it up into droplets that can sink to the bottom. We can only guess what havoc this will wreak on the Gulf floor; the chemical dispersants are of "low toxicity"—in other words, some toxicity—and have never been used before in such large quantities. The only sure thing is that the damage won't be visible to the public eye.

The harm will be more visible, and devastating, to the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Gulf waters. They've been called off their boats at the start of the season for many valuable species of fish, while NOAA tests sea life for contamination. What's heartbreaking is that these are the very fishermen who recently responded to depleted stocks by becoming leaders in adopting new systems to manage their catch, with EDF's help. Red snapper, grouper and tilefish have been coming back—and the fishermen have benefited economically. The fishermen themselves have become stewards of the Gulf. Unfortunately, not everyone working in the Gulf has been as conscientious.

Gulf life cannot compete against an enormous oil spill. When the oil reaches the wetlands, it can coat, suffocate and kill the grasses whose web of roots holds the marshes in place. Then all that will be left is mud, which will simply sink into the seawater.  Marshes buffer the region from storm surges—unless the marshes are so depleted that they wash away. Normally, the marshlands would naturally replenish themselves with sediment that washes down the Mississippi River—except that sediment has been channeled away by levees built over the years to encourage sparse barge traffic. The costs of compromising these natural storm barriers became tragically evident during Hurricane Katrina. So today, barrier islands are sinking and disappearing into the Mississippi River Delta: nearly 25 square miles of critically important wetlands disappear every year.


EDF staff on the ground in Louisiana
to see the oil spill impact on the wetlands and local fishermen.

Sadly, the oil is gushing into the Gulf during peak nesting season: This area is prime breeding ground for countless sea turtles and birds such as the American oystercatcher, who lay their eggs in the sand. Millions of dollars, and countless years of work by EDF and other organizations have been poured, heart and soul, into restoring those vital but now imperiled coastal lands—for the sake of wildlife, and human life. Once again, we are reminded that we are dependent on one another. All that work may be washed away by gushing oil.

Meanwhile, in the peculiar ecosystem that is the political world of Washington DC, the fate of months of negotiations over a bipartisan clean energy/climate/jobs bill hangs in the balance. One of the central compromises made in the hope of the bill’s safe passage was the significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. Now, that grand bargain is jeopardy.

May 5th photo of Nashville after the flood. Photo: Les DeFoor

What a strange and terrible confluence of events! I believe the disasters of this week will prove to be of profound significance. People in Tennessee are saying that they didn't have a 100- year flood; they had a 250- year flood. What does that really mean?  Now that the flood has happened, it won't happen again in their lifetimes? Is that wishful thinking?

Let’s remember that climate scientists predict that one effect of global warming will be more extreme weather patterns: sudden severe flooding in some areas, and intense droughts in others. In other words: global weirding. I have a feeling there's worse to come. Nature is unpredictable, as we can see from the constantly changing direction of the Gulf gusher.

It is way past time to connect the dots. Responsible climate scientists have been unequivocal: the burning of fossil fuels has contributed significantly to global warming. And global warming is dangerous. Then take into consideration the significant degradation we have visited upon our earth in harvesting those fossil fuels, with sloppy, irresponsible, and perhaps even cynical greed.  The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf rig lacked a $500,000 remote control shut-off switch required by other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.

Humankind has been able to alter the course of something as unfathomably large as the climate. But we're reminded, over and over again, that plain old weather can—and will—undo humankind.

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