Yes, BP did ruin the Gulf — ask the seabirds


If you want more evidence that the so-called “debate” — kicked off and ginned up by a BP public relations executive and aided and abetted by a compliant news media — over whether or not the oil giant’s 5-million-barrel 2010 spill destroyed the Gulf is a ridiculous argument, just check out the latest casualty figures. This weekend, there was an alarming new scientific report about the massive harm that BP’s crude did to the region’s bird life.

Four years ago, the photos of rescue workers trying to save — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — oiled birds along the Gulf Coast broke America’s collective heart, and understandably so. But while it’s often true that a picture is worth 1,000 words, it’s also a fact that in this case much of the real story took place out of the public eye. It was clear to observers that many birds who’d been oiled by contact with BP’s massive slick were most likely suffering out of sight, far from shore. Now a team of researchers has studied the issue more closely and found the impact was even worse than feared:

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is often cited as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history—yet its impacts on the marine life of the Gulf of Mexico have gone largely undetermined. Now, new findings published this month in Marine Ecology Progress Series estimate that the number of seabirds lost as a result of the spill may number well into the hundreds of thousands.

Birds are especially vulnerable to oil, which can coat their feathers and cause death by dehydration, starvation, or drowning. Seabird mortalities can easily be underestimated following a spill as bodies are lost at sea or go undiscovered. So researchers turned to two different estimation methods—one whereby total mortalities were estimated from the actual number of dead birds recovered, and another in which information on the geographic extent of the oil slick and seabird densities were used to estimate potential mortalities.

The scientists found that although the two approaches were based on different data sets, they returned roughly similar estimates of 600,000 and 800,000 oil-related seabird deaths, respectively. Although the number of seabird mortalities from the spill likely centers around 700,000, sources of uncertainty in the estimates indicate the number of deaths could actually lie anywhere between 300,000 and 2 million. In comparison, an estimated 250,000 seabirds were lost during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and longline fisheries are estimated to contribute to 160,000 to 320,000 seabird deaths globally each year. For some seabirds, such as the laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), the Deepwater Horizon impact translates into an estimated loss of more than 30% of its Gulf of Mexico population. Energy company BP faces civil penalties based in part on the number of birds and other wildlife lost in the spill, therefore the mortality estimates could influence the amount the company will be required to pay.

Why do we keep hammering this issue? There are multiple reasons. It’s important both for science and for policymakers to understand the complete and devastating impact of BP’s oil spill. It’s certainly also important from a legal perspective, since BP continues to battle, despite all evidence to the contrary, to reduce its financial responsibilities to the Gulf.

It’s particularly crucial that we know the risks, because the pressure for more off-shore drilling — and this the risk of more Deepwater Horizons — continues unabated. The loss of so many birds in the years since 2010 affects not only the Gulf, but the far-flung areas across North America where these birds used to migrate — and it will bring unpredictable fallout up and down the food chain. It’s one more reason that we need to remind ourselves again and again that, yes, actually BP did ruin the Gulf.

To read more about the latest research into seabird mortality after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, check out:

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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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