June 7, 2010
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.
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
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.