The secret oil spill that’s eating away at the Gulf


The 2010 BP oil spill has had many unintended consequences. Here’s another one: It tends to suck a lot of the oxygen from other serious environmental issues facing the Gulf of Mexico — especially now with a flood of publicity on the 5th anniversary of the catastrophe. But even before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010, this precious natural resource on America’s southern edge was losing thousands of acres of wetlands to human activities, while nutrients from lawn fertilizers and others sources continued to pour in from the Mississippi River, creating giant oxygen-starved dead zones hostile to marine life.

That’s all on top of drilling activity. The truth is that even before the BP spill grabbed so much attention (and understandably so, with a record leak of 5 million barrels of crude), Big Oil has been taking a steady toll on the Gulf. One site that’s long been on the radar screen of environmentalists is the Taylor Energy spill site off the Louisiana coast. My colleague Bonny Schumaker, whose On Wings of Care operation makes frequent flyovers of the Gulf to look for environmental problems, has been tracking the Taylor site occasionally for five years, and she’s noted large oily sheens on the water’s surface. Now, the media is taking notice as well:

Down to just one full-time employee, Taylor Energy Company exists for only one reason: to fight an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that has gone largely unnoticed, despite creating miles-long slicks for more than a decade.

The New Orleans-based company has downplayed the leak’s environmental impact, likening it to scores of minor spills and natural seeps that the Gulf routinely absorbs.

But an Associated Press investigation has revealed evidence that the spill is far worse than what Taylor — or the government — has publicly reported. Presented with AP’s findings, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently touted by the company.

Outside experts say the spill could be even worse — possibly one of the largest ever in the Gulf, albeit still dwarfed by BP’s massive 2010 gusher.

The roots of the leak lie in an underwater mudslide triggered by Hurricane Ivan’s waves in September 2004. That toppled Taylor’s platform and buried 28 wells under sediment about 10 miles off Louisiana’s coast at a depth of roughly 475 feet. Without access to the buried wells, traditional “plug and abandon” efforts wouldn’t work.

The AP article notes that the spill hasn’t reached land but poses a major health risk to birds, fish and other marine life. In 2008, the spill was officially branded “a significant threat” to the environment by the Coast Guard — but that hasn’t motivated the remnants of Taylor or the government to come up with a permanent solution. You might call it irony, but back on the mainland the late founder of Taylor Energy had commissioned the world’s largest monument to President Ronald Reagan. But his oil spill is a living monument to that lax oversight that took root in the Reagan era.

There’s some important current context here. In the years since the Deepwater Horizon fiasco, the U.S. government — defying all logic — has stepped up its oil leasing program. The price of crude oil is low right now, but any increase would mean a surge in drilling activity in the Gulf. The Taylor Energy situation is a living, unending reminder of the many different things that can go wrong in the perilous offshore environment.

To read more about our early efforts in 2010 to show the truth about size of the the BP spill, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

Read the AP account of the “hidden” Taylor Energy oil spill:

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