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Two Years Later, BP Spill Still Killing Gulf Marine Life

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and releasing as much as five million barrels of crude oil into the sea. Up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day flowed from the broken well until BP was able to plug the leak on July 15, 2010. It was the biggest offshore spill in U.S. history.

Two years later, Gulf of Mexico oil drillers are busier than ever, with eight new deepwater rigs expected this year, bringing the active number to 29—just short of the pre-spill number.

“…swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana.”

Standing at the docks in Venice, Louisiana, at the tip of Plaquemine Parish, one can see sport fishing boats piled high with big red fish zip in and out, shrimpers loaded with ice and crew pull into the currents, and barges fitted with drill equipment bump against their moorings. It’s hard to see any evidence of the spill. The economy seems revived, fish would seem to be plentiful, and there’s no visible sheen on the water.

Things are looking good…at least from this vantage point.

But swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana. “Although the oil has stopped flowing from the wellhead, the Gulf oil spill is not over,” Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, told the New Orleans Times Picayune.

A recent NWF report claims there are six key areas still at risk due to the spill —as well as a variety of creatures, including bottlenose dolphins, a variety of sea turtles, brown pelicans, and Atlantic bluefin tuna. It’s still too soon to assess the long-term impact on much of the region’s wetlands, but the NWF is asking Congress to pass the Restore Act, which would dedicate fines and penalties against BP and other responsible parties toward long-term restoration of the Gulf.

As for the seafood shipped from the Gulf across the country, the verdict is still out on how healthy it is. Seafood processors say last year’s brown-shrimp season was good, but the white-shrimp catch was off. Oyster beds unharmed by the floods of fresh Mississippi River water—released to keep the oil offshore or to relieve record flooding last year—have seen strong harvests. Areas where the harvest was delayed in 2010 because of concerns about oil tainting the shellfish have seen weaker harvests. A variety of studies and reports detailing just how much of that crude oil still lurks in both the ocean, and the fish, are anticipated soon.

Here are some sea organisms gravely hit by the spill:

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS

The most visibly at-risk creatures are the bottlenose dolphins, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has labeled in “poor health” since the spill, thanks to an “unexplained mortality event.” Stranded dolphins have been showing up on beaches from Louisiana to Peru since the spill, suffering from lung and liver disease and abnormally low levels of hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.

“They are at the top of the food chain in the Gulf, perhaps even more than we are, because they eat whole fish. They consume everything,” said George Crozier, retired director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. “That creates a situation where they might be bio-accumulating any toxics in the food chain.”

Because they breathe air, the dolphins are also likely to have inhaled toxic fumes, in addition to have swum through oil.

CORAL

Travel seven miles from the site of the spill, dive a mile deep and, according to a study cofunded by NOAA and BP, the corals lining the ocean floor are dead and dying and coated in “brown gunk.”

Extensive damage to the coral became apparent eight months after the spill. Many thought the bulk of the ecological damage would be limited to close to the surface, but thanks to the depth of the spill and cold temperatures, plumes of oil particles remained deep, causing unprecedented damage.

“A simple surface spill would be unlikely to have an impact at this depth,” says Chuck Fisher, a Penn State University professor, and one of the authors of the report.

Coral and starfish at the reef showed “widespread signs of stress,” including dead specimens, discoloration, and, in the case of the starfish, abnormal behavior.

“Things happen very slowly in the deep sea, whether it’s life or death. One of the surprising things we found when we came back is that it looked almost exactly as it did two months before,” says Fisher. “It will be a long time before we know the full effects of the spill.”

ZOOPLANKTON

It’s not just the charismatic sea creatures that suffered; scientists have confirmed that hydrocarbons from the spill have entered the ocean’s food chain through zooplankton, small organisms that drift through the ocean and are used as food by shrimp and baby fish.

The contaminated zooplankton serve as food for small fish and shrimps, thus acting as “conduits for the movement of oil contamination and pollutants into the food chain.”

In a study published in Science Daily, Dr. Michael Roman, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said “Traces of oil in the zooplankton prove that they had contact with the oil and the likelihood that oil compounds may be working their way up the food chain.”

BUGS

Insects have not escaped scrutiny, or the oil.

A Louisiana State University entomologist says that since the spill, her studies show falling numbers for a variety of bugs.

Linda Hooper-Bui of the LSU Agricultural Center collected insects about 20 or 25 times last year at 45 sites, from Cocodrie to Breton Sound, Louisiana, using both vacuums and nets. She has been studying the same sites since 2009, and has discovered that insects and spiders hit by the spill have declined in population. She reports seeing growth only in some species, while others are still low in numbers, or even collapsing.

“Every single time we go out there, the Pollyanna part of me thinks, ‘Now we’re going to measure recovery’” she said. “Then I get out there and say, ‘Whaaat?’’”

Do you think marine life in the Gulf will ever return to its pre-spill normalcy?

Oil Boom Means More Spilling and Drilling

Just a couple of weeks after BP agreed to fork over $7.8 billion to settle 110,000 claims by Gulf Coast residents affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, another of the so-called supermajor oil companies, Chevron, has been fined and censured due to sizable ongoing spills.

Several incidents at Chevron rigs in the Frade oil field (roughly 230 miles northeast of Rio de Janerio) since late last year—and as recently as this week—have oozed more than 3,000 barrels of crude into the Atlantic Ocean. Brazilian prosecutors have filed an $11.2 billion civil suit against both Chevron and, voila, its drilling partner Transocean Ltd., for the accidents. Add that to previously assessed fines topping $100 million.

“A sizable oil leak was first detected last November; today (March 20) the company admitted to a “new small seep.” An anonymous source tells Brazilian officials many more spills are imminent.”

Frade is the largest foreign-run oil field in Brazil, producing more than 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Though Chevron, the biggest foreign oil company working in Brazil, has temporarily shut down its production operations in the country, there’s talk among local politicians about banning Chevron from Brazil’s oil riches if it doesn’t shape up. Along those lines, 17 employees of Chevron and Transocean had their passports confiscated this week and are banned from leaving Brazil until a full accounting of the recent accidents is made.

According to a report in The New York Times, Brazil’s state-controlled oil giant Petrobas reported 66 oil leaks in the country in 2011, which spilled more than 60,000 gallons. Brazil’s boom, and leaks, are a reminder of just how closely tied drilling and spilling are:

1) While the future of the Keystone XL pipeline is still being hotly debated, a new report by Cornell University claims that spills from tar sands—a heavier and more corrosive oil product that puts greater stress on pipelines—are three times more likely to occur than conventionally accessed oil. The existing Keystone 1 pipeline, operating since 2010, has had 35 spills in its 2,100-mile run.

2) We reported here in 2010 about a one-million-gallon oil spill from tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that eventually drifted 40 miles upstream. More than 130 houses have since been abandoned along the river; hunting, fishing and other recreational activities in the area have been forbidden; and the cleanup has cost twice what pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. originally estimated, so far topping $725 million.
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3) With the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on the horizon (April 20), BP was happy to get that $7.8 billion worth of payoffs behind it. But as deepwater drilling picks up off the Gulf Coast, some drilling within Mexican and Cuban waters and out of U.S. cleanup jurisdiction, the company is far from off the hook. The Wall Street Journal reports that civil penalties of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel (the total spilled was 4.9 million barrels) and additional penalties under the Clean Water Act could cost the company another $21 billion. BP needs to keep on drilling in order to pay off its fines, including ramping up its five deepwater rigs still operating in the Gulf and the three more coming online before year’s end.

4) In the boldest move yet in the exploitation-versus-environmental protection tug-of-war, Shell Oil has preemptively sued 13 environmental groups (Audubon Society, Oceana, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and more) before even drilling its first well. Though the company has spent $4 billion since 2007 on its Chukchi Sea project without sucking a drop of oil from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, it is requesting a federal court to declare in advance that its cleanup response plans are sufficient. The cynical lawsuit suggests the company is preparing not for if an accident may occur, but when.

Despite BP’s Hype, the Gulf Coast Still Reeks of Disaster

While activist’s attentions have been appropriately drawn in recent months to OWS camps, XL pipeline protests and now to Durbin, the mess in the Gulf created by the 2010 BP explosion/spill continues to seep.

Photo: Lee Celano/Reuters

 

For hundreds of thousands along the coast, whether fisherman or shopkeeper, rigger or housewife, impacts of the spill are still daily concerns.

Still pumping. Despite the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon blowup, demand for oil in the U.S. continues to rise, while foreign stocks become ever trickier to access (Libya, Saudi Arabia).

One result is that after a yearlong abstention, new leases are being sold (one upcoming sale scheduled for December 14 in New Orleans covers 21 million acres in water depths up to 11,000 feet) and new drilling permits granted (nearly 300 in the Gulf of Mexico in the past 12 months).

Among the companies given the go-ahead to drill is BP, which has been approved to sink an exploratory well about 250 miles off the coast, 6,000 feet below the surface, or 1,000 feet deeper than its Macondo well that blew in April 2010.

An added concern, reported by Sky Truth, is that despite the government’s promise to dismantle unused oil platforms and plug nonoperational wells, “there are currently 24,486 known permanently abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico and 3,593 ‘temporarily’ abandoned wells, as of October 2011.” Each has the potential to leak.

Still paying out. With shrimpers and crabbers reporting small catches and a shrunken market, Gulf oil claims czar Kenneth Feinberg announced this week that settlement to some Gulf Coast fishermen would not just continue but grow.

To date, just $6 billion of the $20 billion compensation fund established by BP to make reparations has been paid out; Feinberg’s decision will pay quadruple the claims made by shrimpers and crabbers for their 2010 losses. Without putting it in so many words, the allotment was made because no one can still say with certainty what the future of fishing will be in the Gulf thanks to the environmental degradation caused by the BP spill.

Yet Feinberg continues to argue that the slowdown is all about the marketplace, not biology. “We see no evidence in the Gulf that there is long-term biological impact,” he said in a statement announcing the increased payouts.

Meanwhile, many commercial fishermen have opted to not take any money from BP, which allows them to sue the company for potentially bigger payouts. In response, BP has gone to federal court to put a firm deadline on payouts and has been encouraging Feinberg to limit, not expand, the money he gives away.

“Shoreline cleanup is complete!”That’s at least according to BP and the Coast Guard, which last week announced it was time to move past cleanup and on to “restoration.”

Reporting that “90 percent” of the shoreline has been cleaned, the announcement officially removes BP from responsibility for any future cleanup unless it can be “proven” any new oil found originated in the 2010 spill. Even the oil company admits that would be hard to prove as the oil degrades and spreads throughout the ecosystem.

Many Gulf fishermen, who report both a lack of fish—particularly shrimp, crab and oysters—as well as deformities among those they do catch, are not convinced the cleanup is over. Those 4.9 billion barrels of oil had to go somewhere, and many believe much of it is still out there.

Those 4.9 billion barrels of oil had to go somewhere, and many believe much of it is still out there.

It’s not just the fisheries that continue to suffer. The shorelines of many of the bird-breeding islands off the Gulf coast, in Louisiana and Mississippi, are still like oil sponges—each footstep reveals an oily substance just below the sand—and tar balls continue to roll up in the surf.

Human health still at risk. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have jointly announced a long-term project aimed at monitoring the impacts of the spill on coastline residents.

Dubbed the Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up (GuLF), the idea is a “more than ten-year study” that will hopefully involve as many as 55,000 participants. Its focus is on the health implications of the handling and exposure to oil, dispersants and other chemicals in the cleanup operation.

While former cleanup workers continue to complain about rashes, respiratory problems, sores, headaches, nausea and more, the challenge now is to identify and sign up willing participants. The promised $50 gift card offered by the government may not be enough of an incentive to be poked, prodded, interviewed and visited in your home.

The study, similar to one done on cleanup workers at the site of the World Trade Center post 9/11, is imperative but it’s just one piece of what should be a sizable human health follow-up in the aftermath of one of the country’s greatest ecologic disasters.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)

Shell Oil Claims to Stop One Leak (U.K.), While Others Erupt (Nigeria)

No one should feel sorry for Royal Dutch Shell. Thanks to high prices due to continued upset in the Middle East, its profits in the second quarter of 2011 were up 77 percent over the previous year’s, while it continues to siphon 3.1 billion barrels of oil per day out of the Earth in more than 90 countries. Still, it’s been a trying week for the Netherlands-based company.

Photo: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Just as it seemed to stem a leak in the North Sea—the worst oil spill in U.K. waters in the past decade, which it managed to keep quiet for several days after the leak began—in Nigeria, things couldn’t be going worse for the public company: Over the weekend a pipeline exploded along the Okordia-Rumuekpe Trunkline and is still spilling untold amounts of oil. That came on top of last week’s news of a victorious class-action suit against the company that requires it to spend $500 million to clean up two giant spills going back to 2008 and 2009—which could take the next 30 years.

Given those environmental success stories, the bright light for the company last week was the tentative approval it was granted by the Obama Administration to drill exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska next summer.

Who we should feel sorry for are the people of Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer. The country is an environmental basket case thanks to companies like Shell, which first discovered oil there in 1956. (Before it was forced by the courts to clean up the 2008/2009 spills, the company tried to buy locals off with a little bit of cash and bags of rice and beans.) The first Shell well opened more than 50 years ago and the country’s rich oil resource has subsequently been abused. Since 1989 there have been more than 7,000 spills in Nigeria, dumping twice as much crude as was spilled during last year’s Gulf of Mexico spill.

As a result, land and water are horribly polluted. Massive amounts of fish have died off, ground water is polluted, and a high incidence of cancer is reported among the impacted area’s population. Shell—and the other oil companies operating in Nigeria—pays lip service to cleaning up the messes they make, but clearly it takes legal judgment to get them to truly act. And even that isn’t always a cure.

The lack of moral company leadership and a strong legal and enforcement system has simultaneously allowed a lucrative black market and, recently, piracy to boom. The Okordia-Rumuekpe spill this past weekend is thought to have been started by a saboteur attempting to disrupt the company’s business. Violence and kidnappings have been commonplace in the region for years. One estimate has 100,000 barrels of oil a day—10 percent of Nigeria’s output—being stolen every day.

It’s thought that piracy in the Atlantic’s Gulf of Guinea could soon rival that off the coast of Somalia, thanks in part to all the oil leaving the docks in Lagos. In the past eight months there has been an increase from low-level robberies to hijackings, cargo seizures and major holdups off the coast of Nigeria’s commercial capital. Chemical and oil tankers are the main targets along its 530-mile coastline.

In July a Greek oil tanker with 20 crew members, carrying oil from Ghana to Benin, was seized 30 miles off Nigeria’s coast. Pirates in gunboats have recently engaged the Nigerian Navy’s Joint Military Task Force—assembled to diminish attacks against unarmed commercial ships—in gunfights.

While attacks on the big ships get most of the attention, smaller boats are at risk as well. Also in July a fishing trawler was attacked by gun-wielding attackers; the ship’s cook was shot as he lay in his bed and bled to death while the pirates boarded the ship, ate, took naps and stole everything not welded down. In January alone there were 50 attacks on fishing boats, 20 in one week, during which 10 sailors were killed.

If all this seems far away and disconnected to our relatively complacent lives, it shouldn’t be. Why should we care whether Shell and others destroy these distant places while criminal elements wreak havoc? Because it’s likely that the gas you bought at the Shell station this morning came from Nigeria, since one out of five gallons imported into the U.S. originates from there. How do we stop some of the degradation in Nigeria? Like so many oil-related questions, it simply involves using less.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)

Posted in Oil spills

5 Reasons Shell Should Not Be Drilling in the Arctic

After more than five years of wrangling and spending billions of dollars, Royal Dutch Shell has finally been given “conditional” approval to start exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska next summer. The go-ahead to drill up to four wells comes from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement (BOEMRE), the agency with the impossible-to-remember name that replaced the corrupt Mineral Mining Service…which had blatantly ignored the realities of what was going on in the Gulf of Mexico’s exploitation business.

Photo: Reuters

Shell bought leases in 2005 and 2007, paying about $3.5 billion, and would like to get started on shallow-water wells next July. The company won approval primarily based on its insistence that in a worst-case scenario—a blowout, similar to the Deepwater Horizon accident—it would be able to recover 90 to 95 percent of any oil spilled. By comparison, only 5 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico was recovered.

It’s clear that one reason the BOEMRE has given its conditional approval is due to consistent prodding within the Obama administration, specifically its Department of Interior, to grow domestic oil production. The agency’s 10-page report allowing Shell’s initial wells said it could find “no significant impact” of the planned wells.

Environmentalists were predictably disappointed by the announcement. “Plain lunacy,” was the response of Chuck Cusen, director of Alaska projects at the NRDC. “A disaster waiting to happen,” said Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris.

One caveat: The company must still get an additional three dozen permits from the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and others before it can do any drilling. Expect fierce opposition.

Here are 5 reasons we should all be cautious about Shell’s plans to tap the vast oil and gas resources that lie beneath the Arctic Ocean:

1. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP spill lasted 86 days, the waters off the coast of Alaska are always frigid and often filled with floating ice. Hurricane force winds, subzero temperatures, and months of fog and darkness are typical. There is no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy waters, where skimmers won’t work. While Shell says it has a “spill response plan,” it also acknowledges it doesn’t currently know how to address a potential spill on ice. As for help, the nearest Coast Guard Station is a thousand miles away and the agency has already said it can’t be counted on for much help (see below). The worst-case scenario is a blowout that begins in the fall and may not be addressed until the ice disappears in the late spring.

2. The proposed drilling site is off the North Slope of Alaska, not far from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to both a delicate ecosystem and a plethora of marine mammals, including bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus, ice seals and other marine wildlife, many of which are endangered. Everything from construction to a spill will inevitably alter the environment.

3. As Arctic and sub-Arctic Sea ice continues to disappear, encouraging more traffic and exploitation, there simply aren’t enough watchdogs in the area to help out if something goes wrong. The Coast Guard says it has begun practicing with skimmers and oil recovery systems but so far they are just “exercises.” If wells like Shell’s are constructed, the Coast Guard has indicated it will need “specialized” assets, i.e. more and bigger boats. Currently it has only one, small active icebreaker in the region. It is considering bringing bigger icebreakers on, but that won’t happen until at least 2013.

4. Even as the conditional approval was being given, a Shell pipeline off the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland was spilling into the North Sea. Thought to be the worst spill in U.K. waters in more than ten years, as many as 120 barrels leaked. The accident occurred on Wednesday of last week, but no report was made by Shell to the public until Friday, by which time it had spread to a 50-square-mile slick. On Saturday the leak was reported (by Shell) to be “under control.”

5. A just-released United Nations report details the extent of environmental pollution caused by Shell in Nigeria during the past 50 years, and it is worse than thought. The UN estimates a proper cleanup would take 30 years and cost more than $1 billion in just the first five years, clearly not a good track record for the company that wants to drill in one of the most pristine environments on the planet. Meanwhile, some Nigerian environmental groups are disagreeing with the UN study, suggesting it was influenced by big oil—including Shell—since true cleanup costs would run into the tens of billions and impact a region far more widespread than the report addresses.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)

As Disasters Pile Up, Let’s Not Forget the Gulf Spill

A sinking feeling washed over me a couple nights ago while watching video of the devastation caused by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While the oil-soaked birds and plaints of residents watching their lives and livelihoods change forever still resonate 11 months after the spill, somehow the whole scene seemed somehow … so … yesterday.

Which is horrific to admit. But think about the horrors we’ve seen since, both man made and natural disasters. Earthquakes have rocked Haiti (230,000 dead) and Chile (8.8 magnitude, decimating cities and coastline), floods in Queensland, wild fires across Russia.

Now the entire world is watching the fallout of the combo earthquake/tsunami that wreaked havoc along the coast of Japan as a potential nuclear nightmare unfolds in front of our eyes.

It is amazing how one ecologic disaster seems to follow another, quickly, sucking the public’s attention along with it. While the Gulf spill was gushing, it’s all anyone could talk about. Today the very same energy, anger and uncertainty that saw a global conversation focus on blowout preventers and containment domes has turned to failed sea walls and spent fuel rods.

Since August of last year I’ve been traveling the country screening a film we made about the environmental ills and powerful culture of Louisiana (“SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories”). The film was being finished just as the spill occurred, so includes some early video of the initial shock and anger that initially consumed Gulf residents.

The third emotion that washed over those fishermen, riggers and Gulf businesspeople? Resignation. Everyone I know along the Gulf was convinced that soon after the well was capped, the world’s eye would turn away. Which happened, to a degree.

But with the one-year anniversary of the spill approaching (April 20), there are some in Louisiana who continue to fight to keep the BP/Deepwater Horizon/TransOcean spill in the headlines.

Riki Ott is one. A community activist, commercial fisherwoman and doctor in marine toxicology, Dr. Ott essentially relocated from her Alaska home to Louisiana since the spill began, testifying anywhere and everywhere she can about the short and long-term implications of the spill. Her books about the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill – “Oil Spill” and “Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill” – have become bibles for locals intent on seeing that the Gulf spill is cleaned up as best as possible and that the people who were impacted made as whole as possible.

This Saturday, March 19, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, Dr. Ott will be the primary speaker at the Forum for the Gulf III, organized by the folks at www.stopgulfoildisaster.org.

Like many in the Gulf region, Dr. Ott thinks there are still many unanswered questions:

*How toxic is Corexit, and what are its effects in the quantities used in the Gulf, in mixing it with oil, and in spraying it at deep-water temperatures?
*What is the truth about infection by bioengineered microbes and their mutations resulting from cultivating them in Corexit and oil?
*Should all residents of the Gulf Coast be tested for microbes and toxins?
*What are medical and legal avenues to recovery for those already affected?
*What will happen to our shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish in the future?
*What do we not know and what are BP and government not saying?

Given the nuclear power mess unfolding in Japan it’s unlikely that new nuclear plants will be built in the U.S. anytime soon, despite being favored by politicians, including the Obama administration.

Which means our dependence on fossil fuels, particularly oil, will not end.

On the same day tsunami waves were trashing Japan a second permit to drill deep in the Gulf of Mexico was granted by the Department of Interior since the moratorium was lifted. The new well will go down 6,500 feet, located about 70 miles off the southern tip of the Louisiana fishing-and-oil hub of Venice.

Politicians from both parties are encouraging more permits be granted and faster, hoping to boost domestic oil production and possibly help decrease the price of gasoline at the pump.

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