Oil spill enters new phase: restoring the Gulf, learning from the disaster


With the injection of cement into the Macondo well on Thursday promising a permanent end to the unprecedented release of hundreds of millions of gallons of oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling accident, the focus has turned to how to best remove the remaining oil from the Gulf of Mexico… and the coastal beaches and wetlands, and how to identify and mitigate the spill’s short-term and long-term economic and environmental effects.

On Wednesday, federal officials gave a preliminary accounting of the 207 million gallons of oil believed released during the Deepwater incident, painting a hopeful picture that showed a quarter of the oil had been removed from the water by burning or collection, and only another quarter of the oil remained in its original form, with the rest either dissolved or dispersed into tiny droplets in Gulf waters.

And on Tuesday, Michael Bromwich, the head of the nation’s revamped oil exploration and production regulatory agency, raised hopes that he will call for an earlier than expected end to an Obama administration moratorium on new deepwater oil exploration that has been roundly lambasted by Louisiana politicians as a job killer.

Scientists, public policy experts and industry officials already have begun addressing the risk of future spills. A consortium of four major oil companies say their plan for a $1 billion system to contain future blowouts will be in place in six months, while federal officials already have issued a flurry of rules revisions for offshore operations and inspected dozens of rigs and platforms.

Independent university researchers, financed by $6 million in emergency National Science Foundation grants and an initial outlay of $30 million from BP, have begun to collect information they hope will explain the short-term and long-term effects of oil and dispersant chemicals on deepwater and coastal wildlife and their habitats.

National spotlight on Louisiana

While Louisiana has undoubtedly been hurt in the short run by the spill and the moratorium, the state may in the end benefit from increased national recognition of the harmful effects of energy exploration on the state’s coast.

King Milling, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation, said the spill has clearly validated the argument that the true impact of oil and gas exploration and production on both Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and its residents must be addressed by the federal government, including the cost of the multibillion-dollar federal-state coastal restoration program.

“This country is absolutely bound to oil and gas for decades to come, and I don’t think anybody disagrees with that, once you get past the emotions of the event,” Milling said. “But we’ve got a gigantic problem down here that’s only been magnified in horrible ways by this event, because it’s revealed the absolute fragility of the rapidly disappearing coastal system that’s now in place.

“We’ve got to find ways to immediately begin large-scale diversions and beneficial use of dredged material to reconstitute the protection that this coast had in the past,” he said.

Rewriting the rules

Another issue in which Louisiana has an enormous stake is rewriting the rules for offshore oil exploration and production.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s rebuilding of the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service into three divisions dealing with oil leases, regulating exploration and production for safety and environmental concerns, and collecting revenue is seen by many critics of the agency as a step in the right direction.

But some environmental groups would like to see an even greater separation between regulation and other industry duties.

“As the oil industry has moved into deeper and deeper, more challenging environments offshore, neither regulations nor the response plans nor the environmental protection elements have kept pace,” said the Environmental Defense Fund’s Elgie Holstein. “What we need is a set of rules for the offshore drilling industry commensurate with the scale and complexity of modern oil exploration and production.

“The administration has already proposed a new organizational approach where the leasing and policing functions would be separated,” Holstein said. “We do support the separation of functions, but we also think they should create a free-standing entity to provide the inspections, verification of designs and the technical standards necessary to be the cop on the beat.”

Such an agency would be outside the control of the Interior Department, similar to the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was made independent from the Department of Energy after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant near Hershey, Pa.

Reviewing environmental concerns

Meanwhile, the White House Council for Environmental Quality is considering public comments on how to change the rules under which environmental concerns associated with oil exploration and production are reviewed, from the time new areas are considered for leasing to the time a well is drilled and production commences.

Scientists pressed into service to collect data to be used in assessments of damages to natural resources from the BP spill say such a review is long overdue.

University of Southern Mississippi marine biologist Steve Lohrenz warns that the scientific effort to determine the effects of this spill must be independent of BP, which has pledged $500 million over 10 years for long-term research.

“We don’t want to stop what BP is doing,” he said. “But we need to have a separate effort supported through federal or state funding.”

BP halted the distribution of its research money after giving $30 million to several Gulf Coast universities, including Louisiana State University, to allow for further consultation with coastal states on how it should be spent.

Fair compensation of residents

A more immediate problem will be fairly compensating Louisiana’s independent and often stubborn citizens for their oil-related losses, said Kerry St. Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

“I was at one meeting listening to the heart-wrenching story from a lady explaining that her husband and son were walking around in the water up to their knees trying to protect what they could of their seafood dock and little shipyard from the oil,” St. Pe said.

“They were totally devastated during Katrina, still paying off their small business loans, and they’d never asked for any handouts, and now they know they have to borrow money to get through this event, too,” he said.

And at the same meeting were Lafourche Parish residents out of work because the spill had caused the shut-down of drilling operations in the Gulf, St. Pe said.

“We have entire families supported by the petroleum industry, and they’re very concerned that a knee-jerk reaction to this spill is going to shut down drilling in the Gulf,” he said. “BP dollars will never get to those people.

“And then we have people who depend on selling raw oysters in restaurants far from the water,” he said. “They might get something from BP, but are they going to be compensated for the perception that all of the Gulf’s seafood is tainted?”

Despite the appointment of attorney Kenneth Feinberg by President Barack Obama to oversee distribution of the $20 billion in claims money that BP is placing into escrow, complaints continue to surface about the claims process.

The Obama administration’s deal with BP envisions that the company will be paying claims for four years.

How long will cleanup really last?

Another feature of the spill response that may last years is the debate about whether the oil has been cleaned up.

In responding to both the extensive cleanup work expected along Louisiana’s coastline and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast and in the offshore areas of the Gulf, scientists and environmentalists urge the Obama administration and Congress to adopt methods that will be driven by science, rather than expediency.

“I think it’s already become obvious that the level of response to oil in our wetlands is not adequate,” said Natalie Snider, science director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a Louisiana-based environmental organization. “We need response teams that will remove oil coming toward marsh areas and beaches before it arrives. There really needs to be a large push on continuing to keep oil out of our wetlands as much as possible.”

Attacking the oil onshore is likely to require reliance on natural bacteria to break down oil that escapes into the wetlands, said John Pardue, a bioremediation expert at Louisiana State University.

“The components of this oil are long chains of waxes, chains of carbons that are 15 to 30 molecules long,” he said. “The bacteria that are already there have enzymes that break these chains into smaller pieces and use the carbon molecules to make energy and new bacteria.”

But keeping these bacteria happy is a difficult balancing job in the coastal environment that requires just the right amounts of oxygen and nutrients. The oxygen could be supplied by aerators,

machines that pump air into the low-oxygen water or spray water into the air, similar to those used at the ends of the 17th Street and London Avenue canals to increase oxygen in floodwaters pumped into Lake Pontchartrain after Katrina.

Years of recovery

For 87 days, America watched oil gush into the ocean. Despite White House portrayals of the oil having mostly disappeared from the Gulf since the well was capped, state officials continue to warn that it could take 10 years or longer to determine the long-term effects of all that oil on both the environment and the economy of the Gulf and Gulf Coast communities.

“This is a marathon for our state and it’s not done for us until our coast and wetlands are fully restored so our people can get back to their way of life,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This