Update: Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

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It’s been 50 days since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 men, and sank the rig under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, it has been pouring an immense volume of oil into the once pristine waters. Estimates are currently sitting at about 150 million litres spilled into the Gulf since then. For comparison’s sake, the Exxon Valdez spilled only 40.9 million litres.

On Thursday, June 3, 2010, British Petroleum was able to get a funnel in place to start siphoning up at least some of the oil spilling out into the Gulf. By the 5th, they were able to capture approximately 30% of the oil leaking from the ruptured wellhead, but they hope to be able to increase that amount soon.

Meanwhile, out in the Gulf, the oil spill is causing heavy damage along the Louisiana and Alabama Coasts, while tar balls, the harbingers of the massive oil slick, have begun to wash ashore along the Florida panhandle. In response to the movements of the slick, some Gulf fisheries have been reopened, while others were closed. At this point, about 30% of the Gulf is closed to fishing.

The economic effect on Gulf residents is expected to be enormous. With the summer tourist season fast approaching, the closure of beaches and recreational fishing areas will mean the loss of millions of dollars. BP has already paid out over $84 million in compensation claims, with many more yet to be resolved. Thousands are now out of work due to the slowdowns and stoppages that reach all the way to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Economically, the region has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and this will serve to prolong the recovery period.

Pelican Oil

For the Gulf’s extensive wildlife and critical areas, the recovery may take a very long time. Even if BP is able to start recovering every drop spilled from the underwater riser pipe, there is still all the millions of litres that have been spilled to date. While cleanup efforts are ongoing, the best BP can hope for is that the oil at sea is dispersed and either drifts to the seafloor or is eventually consumed by oil-eating bacteria. However, right now the oil is drifting in huge underwater plumes, at least two so far to date.

Federal authorities say almost 800 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins and other wildlife have been collected from the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline so far. This wildlife death-toll remains relatively low, well below the tens of thousand of birds, otters and other creatures killed after the Exxon Valdez ran aground. The numbers have been low as most of the oil is still currently off-shore. The Valdez ran aground on a reef close to land, in a more enclosed setting.

Experts say the Gulf’s marshes, beaches and coastal waters, home to a wide array of life, could be transformed into killing fields, though the die-off could take months or years and unfold largely out of sight. The damage could be even greater beneath the water’s surface, where oil and dispersants could devastate zooplankton and the tiny invertebrates at the base of the marine food chain. This could disrupt life all over the Gulf of Mexico and into wider waters.

The Gulf Disaster is the largest environmental disaster in American history, dwarfing even the Exxon Valdez. It is fast becoming a wake-up call for alternative energy. American President Barack Obama has pledged increased federal funding for alternative energy, but the payoffs from that will be a long time coming. In the meantime, dead marine life will continue to wash up on the oil-soaked beaches of the Gulf coast, mute witnesses to the damage caused by our addiction to fossil fuels.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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