The oil spill that keeps on surfacing

by Bill Chameides | October 11th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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The BP oil spill is back in the news … again.

It is euphemistically called an oil “spill.” And I suspect for many Americans it is little more than a distant memory. In fact the April 2010 disaster was a lot more than a spill and it’s not just a memory.

A recap of the oil spill

The so-called BP oil spill began with a tragic explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that left 11 dead and a leaking drill site.

The Macondo well remained uncapped for some 87 days following the blowout, steadily spewing some 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf — the worst disaster of its kind [pdf] in the nation’s history. (See photos.)

Yet shortly after the well was finally capped in September 2010, the news media began reporting that the huge patches of oil that had sprung from it had disappeared, and America in turn turned its attention to other pressing matters, giving little more thought to the cleanup that has dragged on since.

While no longer a focal point except for those still directly affected by it, the aftermath of the oil spill continues to play out. And here and there come glimmers of its ongoing after effects.

Between late August and early September winds and waves whipped up by Hurricane Isaac delivered to coastal communities along the gulf tar balls and oil courtesy of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. (See here and here.) And there have been a smattering of stories (such as here and here) about continuing troubles for the Gulf Coast fishing industry that may be due to the BP oil spill.

Now come two new stories about the BP oil spill.

Settlement with US government soon?

As reported by Daniel Gilbert in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, BP and the U.S. Justice Department are “close to a broad deal that would resolve both the company’s civil and criminal liabilities arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

BP has already paid an estimated $7.8 billion to folks affected by the spill but, according to the Wall Street Journal, “could be liable for between $5.4 billion and $21 billion in civil penalties under the Clean Water Act alone.”

How much money is on the table in this “deal”? No info on that score except a reported $6 billion spread that separates the government’s going settlement number and BP’s.

Environmental temediation or punitive damages

And while it seems pretty clear and understandable that BP wants to put this whole episode behind it as quickly as possible, what’s good for the company might not be good for the country. One major point of contention is under which laws BP will be fined. If the government applies the Clean Water Act heavily, damages would likely go to all Gulf Coast states that were economically harmed by the disaster. If the government uses the Oil Pollution Act heavily, the funds would cover remediation costs for those states that suffered environmental damages (like Louisiana which suffered the bulk of environmental damages) but would not cover economic losses.

BP may be hoping that once this deal is sealed, they will be able to begin to put the whole oil-spill thing behind them. Whatever the deal and its implications for BP, one thing is clear: it is unlikely that the gulf will be able to move on from the spill any time soon.

Here’s a case in point.

In Today’s NYT: ‘Louisiana: Oil Sheen Linked to 2010 BP Oil Spill’

A report in today’s New York Times confirmed that an oil sheen, discovered near the BP oil spill by satellite on September 16, matches the oil from the BP oil spill. (More here.)

The sheen, which has varied in size since it was discovered, was about four miles long on October 4.

Until the Twelfth of Never?

As many scientists warned in April 2010 at the time of the spill, while much of the visible evidence of the spill may fade, its impact on the Gulf Coast ecosystem will play out for decades to come. (See here, here and here.) And evidence is mounting to support that prognosis.

Here’s an example. Brian Silliman of the University of Florida and colleagues published a paper in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting on field observations of gulf marshes from October 2010 through January 2012. While they found evidence of marsh recovery 18 months after the spill in regions that were previously oiled but not eroded, they also found disturbing amplification of wetlands retreat in oiled patches of the marshes that are likely to be permanent. “Oil-driven plant death … more than doubled rates of shoreline erosion,” the authors wrote, going on to suggest that this amplified erosion “warns of the enhanced vulnerability of already degraded marshes to heavy oil coverage.”

Given that erosion and wetlands loss arguably add up to the most serious problem facing the Gulf Coast — from an economic and environmental perspective—the Silliman et al result suggests that whether we are aware of it or not, the BP oil spill could be with us for a long, long time.


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