The Red Sea Oil Spill

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On Wednesday, June 16, 2010, oil began appearing on the beaches of Hurghada, Egypt. This region, often known as the Egyptian Riviera, is the centrepiece of Egypt’s drive to increase tourism, the country’s largest source of foreign currency. In 2009, the tourism industry brought in about $15.4 billion, with the resorts along the Red Sea responsible for the lion’s share of these earnings.

Initially, the Egyptian government blamed the spill on a Russian tanker that had emptied its bilges off-shore, but as the leak continued, it became apparent that they were dealing with something different.  Over the next few days, several different explanations surfaced. One version blamed a leaking oil rig, some say it may have been sabotage, while still others claim that the oil came from ancient seabed deposits that liquefied and floated to the surface in the above-average temperatures the region is receiving.

All these explanations are being touted, with the government favouring the idea of the tanker, though as yet there is no official word on the cause of the spill. All this despite footage from on independent environmental organization showing oil in the water around a rig off Geisum Island, about 35 kilometers off-shore from the tourist region. Like all oil rigs in Egyptian waters, it is owned by the state-controlled oil company, Petrogulf Misr, which may explain the government’s reluctance to assign blame.

Egypt operates about 180 oil rigs in the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez, which supplied the country with about 742,000 barrels of oil in 2009, though production in the area is declining. There has been some discussion about reducing the number of rigs operating in the area, in order to be able to monitor them more closely.

Egyptian authorities are describing the spill as relatively minor, as oil spills go, though the actual amount of the spill is unknown. The region is so rich in marine life, however, that any sort of spill could wreak extensive damage. Oil has been coming ashore along the resort communities in the area, which have been largely cleaned up since the well was capped. It’s not the beaches that are the main concern of environmentalists, though. It is the island breeding grounds and rich and varied reef ecosystems that are the major worry. Oil in those areas could cause a great deal of damage, and would be very hard to clean. Though cleanup efforts are winding up on the beaches, on the reefs and islands they have barely begun.

In the wake of the Gulf Oil disaster, it appears that the Egyptian government is trying to head off any negative press early in order to avoid the risk of damaging their nascent tourism industry. Though their efforts to clean the region are commendable, the lack of transparency surrounding the spill makes it very difficult to know what exactly is going on, and how much damage has truly been done.

  • 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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