As chants of “drill baby drill” were heard during the 2008 U.S. elections, chants of “spill baby spill” now fill the corridors. Offshore oil drilling, while known to be risky, was seen as the savior of US energy policy and is now being reconsidered. Already the Obama administration called a short-term moratorium on permits for new deepwater oil drilling and is considering lengthening that moratorium.
With estimates of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions gallons of oil spilling daily from BP’s Maconda Oil well,1 scientists are still struggling to get data on the breadth and scope of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.2 Despite the lack of knowledge of the impact of the oil spill, scientists are aware of many potential environmental problems that will not only afflict the Gulf region, but other regions (and countries) as well.
Endangered Habitat, Endangered Animals
The Gulf of Mexico is known for its many bird estuaries and as one of the world’s richest fisheries. The area is particularly sensitive because it serves as a spawning ground for many fish species, such as grouper, lobster, and blue crabs, which travel from the Yucatan and from the Florida Keys to spawn in this area.3
Ten animal species that are at the most risk from this spill include: 1. North Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, 2. Sea Turtles, 3. Sharks, 4. Marine mammals (whales, porpoises, dolphins), 5. Brown Pelicans, 6. Oysters, 7. Shrimp and blue crab, 8. Menhaden and marsh-dwelling fish, 9. Beach-nesting and migratory shorebirds, and 10. 96 species of migratory songbirds — warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers, swallows and others. These species are at risk for a variety of reasons, such as spawning periods while the spill is occurring (blue fin tuna and sharks), oil toxicity to the animal (oysters), and oil on nesting grounds (migratory birds).4
Beyond the Gulf area, many are worried about oil slicks that travel in the open waters to Florida or even up the Atlantic seacoast, wreaking damage along the way, potentially killing fish larvae in many areas.5 At risk are the smallest of sea creatures, plankton, whose absence will be felt up to food chain.6
Other environmental challenges arise from the various dispersants used to clean up the spill. Some of these dispersants are toxic and may have a long-term effect on the Gulf fish population.
Regulating Offshore Drilling
While BP is making efforts to contain the spill, environmentalists and U.S. legislators are looking into ways to prevent similar disasters. One area in need of change is offshore drilling regulations, whose standards have been set by industry, rather than an independent source.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) is responsible for regulating offshore drilling, in addition to leasing contracts and collecting royalties for oil and gas produced in these areas. These royalties provide an extensive amount of revenue for the U.S. government, second to only the revenue provided by the Internal Revenue Service. Not only is there a conflict of interest in the dual roles of the MMS, there has been a history of a revolving door amongst employees of oil companies and employees of MMS.7 The Head of the U.S. Minerals Management Service has since resigned from her post.
Some recommend creating prescriptive standards, rather than the current performance goals system. For example, the current goal system leaves it to industry to prevent blow-outs, while a prescriptive system would dictate how this should be done and would hold industry accountable.8 In the past, BP and TransOcean have vehemently opposed changing drilling regulations, even regulations on safety standards, in part because of the high costs.9
Implications of the Gulf Oil Spill
While not the biggest oil spill in world history, it may become the biggest in U.S. history. Global implications abound. Giant undersea oil plumes may be swept up by Caribbean currents, in what is called the Gulf loop. Countries neighboring the US have been warned about potential contamination; the U.S. has even contacted Cuba to inform them of the pollution risk.10
Since BP and TransOcean are major international players in offshore drilling, there are fears of similar disasters taking place in Africa, specifically in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone where major offshore oil exploration is taking place by BP. Ghana is known for its corruption in this field, and so is viewed as particularly vulnerable.11
While some of these fears are more speculative than based in fact, the international environmental impact is certain, especially for fish and migratory birds. Unfortunately it may be years from now when the public knows the full impact of this disaster.
1 Curtis and Joseph Goodman. “Gulf oil spill puts a fragile world in peril.” Miami Herald. May 5, 2010.
2 Gillis, Justin. “Scientists Fault Lack of Studies Over Gulf Oil Spill.” New York Times. May 19, 2010.
3 Morgan, Curtis and Joseph Goodman. “Gulf oil spill puts a fragile world in peril.” Miami Herald. May 5, 2010
4 Drapkin, Julia. “10 Animals Most At Risk from Gulf Oil Spill.” CBS News. April 29, 2010.
5 Morgan, Curtis and Joseph Goodman. “Gulf oil spill puts a fragile world in peril.” Miami Herald. May 5, 2010.
6 Wilson, Judith. “Impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the seafood industry.” Helium.
7 Blumenthal. Les and Erika Bolstad. “U.S. agency lets oil industry write offshore drilling rules.” McClatchy Newspapers. May 10, 2010.
9 “Big Oil Fought Off New Safety Rules Before Rig Explosion.” Huffington Post. April 26, 2010.
10 Cunningham, Finian. “Gulf Oil Disaster: A Transatlantic Pollution Catastrophe Looms.” Centre for Research on Globalization. May 21, 2010.
* Picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skytruth/4543315980/