Oil sightings are pouring in at a dizzying rate from across the Gulf of Mexico. There’s fresh oil. There’s weathered oil. There are oil “globules.” There are oil “streaks.” There are oil spills, oil slicks and large expanses of oil sheen. Frankly, there’s so much oil it’s becoming difficult to keep it all the straight, determining where one slick or sheen ends and another begins as oil meanders for miles out into the distant reaches of the Gulf. As one slick dissipates (perhaps with the help of dispersants), another appears to take its place in a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction (see link to my previous post and photos below).
And it’s not just fresh oil that’s causing concern. In the wake of Tropical Storm Lee, weathered oil from BP’s Macondo Well is coming ashore again – fouling beaches from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.
We’re up to our eyeballs in oil, and we don’t yet know what the long-term impacts will be on the Gulf ecosystem.
It’s against this “oil everywhere” backdrop that our federal government is moving forward with its first sale of offshore drilling leases since last year’s catastrophic spill. President Obama is opening an additional 20 million acres – an area the size of Maine – in the western quadrant of the Gulf to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The lease auction includes parcels as far from shore as 250 miles and as close as nine, a frightening prospect indeed when considering the feasibility of an effective spill response.
What I find so troubling about Obama’s move is that we are opening vast new areas of the Gulf to oil spills when it’s abundantly clear that we can’t adequately protect the areas that are already being explored and drilled. Sections of the Gulf that are currently open are dotted with leaking platforms. Untold amounts of oil bubble to the surface from an estimated 27,000 abandoned wells, which are not routinely inspected after being plugged and are not monitored for leaks.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) – formerly known as the Minerals Management Service (MMS) – is tasked with regulating the the oil and gas industry. The agency is understaffed and underfunded (some say by design, but that’s a whole other issue for another day). BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich has said: “We have barely 60 inspectors to cover 3,000-plus facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. If it weren’t so troubling, it would be laughable.”
And consider this from an April 17, 2011 New York Times article:
Even those who run the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service concede that it will be years before they can establish a robust regulatory regime able to minimize the risks to workers and the environment while still allowing exploration offshore.
Does that sound like we’re ready to open new areas of the Gulf to drilling? It appears we’re already underwater (so to speak) on the inspection front. Yet on we roll toward these new lease sales slated for Dec. 14. We’ve already bitten off way more than we can chew – and now we’re about to take another huge gluttonous bite.
When considering Obama’s decision, let’s take a glance at where things currently stand in the Gulf. From a Sept. 10, 2011 flyover report from On Wings of Care pilot Bonny Schumaker (see link to photos at bottom):
We…found, easily and quickly, a long streak of oil and oil ‘globules’, stretching for several miles from southwest to northeast but less than 100 meter wide. And who was near it, but the same BP-contracted vessel we’ve seen several times before sailing or sampling in this area – the Sarah Bordelon. According to marinetraffic.com, she returned to the scene of last year’s BP disaster (the “MC252 block”) as soon as Hurricane Lee had passed through, and for the past few days she has resumed her practice of sailing grid patterns, in the same areas where we have been videotaping and photographing oil from the air. As we approached, she executed a U-turn and proceeded in a direction that brought her closer to us. We’d love to know what BP is doing out there, and what they are finding. How can the public learn this information, and is it legal for them to withhold it from the public? Does the US Coast Guard know? Why doesn’t the media ask?
The oil slicks we found today were narrower and shorter and the globules smaller than those we’ve been seeing the past few weeks. But they are in the same general area as the large slick we reported to you last August 30. What happened to that large slick? We have heard from the US Coast Guard in recent public meetings that dispersants are still being used legally and liberally in offshore waters, and that they apply them both from surface vessels and aircraft.
What strikes me about Schumaker’s report is all the questions she asks as she searches for clarity – tangling with an industry cloaked in secrecy and a government that’s complicit. We’d love to know what BP is doing there, and what they are finding. Does the Coast Guard know? What happened to that large slick?
So not only are we forced to rely on an underfunded, understaffed regulatory agency, we are dealing with an industry that embraces a policy of nondisclosure. Throughout last year’s spill response, BP exhibited a complete lack of transparency that led to a confused, poorly executed effort to contain and cleanup 200 million gallons of crude. And nothing has changed since then.
We see proof of BP’s failed response in all the oil that continues to foul shorelines today. There are giant tar balls – some the size of grapefruits – coming ashore in Gulf Shores, Alabama (see below).
Photo credit to Inquisitr (http://www.inquisitr.com/)
And this from a Sept. 6 WKRG-TV report:
“It’s disappointing because, it’s not over,” says Grant Brown with the city of Gulf Shores.
Just to the west of Little Lagoon Pass, tar balls the size of tennis balls started washing ashore. They were on the beach, in the surf and not a surprise to anyone according to Brown. “We’ve been aware of tar mats just off shore in the surf zone. You would assume during a heavy surf event like we just had with Tropical Storm Lee that we’re going to have the agitation and the stuff down there is probably going to break up and come ashore.”
The size of these things are what really kind of strikes you and then when you break them open, that gooiness, you don’t even have to put it up to your nose and you can already smell the petroleum.
In Orange Beach, Alabama, city officials are reporting that tar balls now litter beaches that had been painstakingly cleaned for months on end following the Macondo Well blowout. Farther west, there are tar mats the size of man-hole covers plastered to Fourchon Beach on Louisiana’s Grand Isle. From a Sept. 9 Times-Picayune article:
Surge from Tropical Storm Lee uncovered numerous tar mats, dozens of tar balls and abandoned strings of oil snare pom-poms along a stretch of Fourchon Beach owned by the Wisner Donation Trust, according to the property’s manager. “The beach got hit hard by surge, as it always does,” said Cathy Norman, secretary-treasurer and land manager for the trust. “With all the sand removed, many things were uncovered, including these huge tar mat areas.”
The bottom line: Moving forward with new drilling leases is an exercise in insanity. There’s no doubt that we will regret it sooner or later – but, of course, then it will be too late.
I’ll close with this from an Aug. 19 New York Times article:
“Rushing this lease sale puts marine ecosystems at risk before the ink is even dry on the impacts of the BP spill,” said Jacqueline Savitz of the international conservation group Oceana. She added that the ocean energy bureau “appears to be caving to intense pressure from the oil industry to return to ‘business as usual,’ without regard for the extraordinary risks to already imperiled marine animals.”
Catchup on the federal government’s impending Gulf lease sales here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/business/energy-environment/us-plans-first-sale-of-offshore-oil-leases-since-gulf-disaster.html
Visit the On Wings of Care website to see how much oil is out in the Gulf: http://onwingsofcare.org/protection-a-preservation/gulf-of-mexico-oil-spill-2010/gulf-of-mexico-oil-spill-2011-spring/183-gulf-of-mexico-oil.html
Read Rocky Kistner’s report on oil coming ashore in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rocky-kistner/an-oily-tide-washes-in-wi_b_957083.html
See my previous post on fresh oil surfacing in the vicinity of BP’s Macondo Well: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/bps-denial-upended-gulf-flyover-surveillance-reveals-large-amount-of-surface-oil-at-deepwater-horizon-site
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