Nature – or rather nature in distress as a result of our industry incompetence – has made headline television news and newspapers’ front page. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is in competition with the UK elections for breaking news and its status is predicted to outdo the Exxon Valdez http://www.eoearth.org/article/exxon_valdez_oil_spill.
MY VIEW: ‘Blame game’: It was interesting to note on Channel 4 News, BP pointing the finger at the company who owns and manages the oil rig. BP did acknowledge however that as it was ‘their’ oil that was being extracted, and they were doing everything possible to slow the devastation..Companies should – and need to be taken to account to ensure this happens – take responsibility for the consequences – economically and environmentally – for the industries. Pollution is especially problematic as once the ‘flow’ begins, the damage can be severe and long term. Oil pollution is the form of slicks is has a reputation for being a major concern, as it is very difficult to handle and, in the context of the open ocean, spreads… and then does immeserbable damage. As The Independent’s Michael McCarthy states: ‘This couldn’t have happened at a worse time or a worse place’. How we respond will show what we really think about the oceans and their resources. It will also signal how much we have learnt about past wildlife disasters.
PLUS: * Will it reallt be a catastrophe??
Gulf oil slick is a disaster for world climate deal
Offshore oil drilling could become unacceptable, eliminating Barack Obama’s bargaining tool with the Republicans, writes Geoffrey Lean. Could the greatest casualty of the giant oil slick surging through the Gulf of Mexico turn out to be not Louisiana’s magnificent wildlife, or the biggest US fishery outside Alaska, but the last remaining chance of an international agreement to combat climate change? It seems counter-intuitive. Surely an economic and ecological disaster, caused by exploiting the fossil fuels that emit all that carbon dioxide, should make the world keener to tackle global warming by moving to cleaner sources of energy? But that would be in a rational universe – one where agreement did not depend on two increasingly dysfunctional institutions: the UN climate treaty negotiations and the US Congress.
* Barak Obama’s Demands: £17billion wiped off BP shares as oil slick reaches U.S. coast in ‘worst spill in history’… and Obama says they will pay
Environmentalists always cry “ecological catastrophe!” when oil gushes into the the sea, and usually they are wrong.
A 1993 spill off the Shetlands from the wrecked oil taker Braer, forecast to kill “whole populations” of birds, actually did little damage. Nor did a similarly apocalyptically-hailed one off Spain in 2002. And a scientific expedition a year after the release of a million tons of oil, affecting 350 miles of coast on the Arabian Gulf during the first Gulf War, found no trace of it in 177 out of 180 dives in the sea. WHERE
Yet sometimes nature cannot cope. The spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 killed at least 250,000 birds –ten times as more as in any previous disaster – and the area’s fragile ecology has yet to recover fully. And already it looks as if the new spill in the Gulf of Mexico may be even worse.
As off Alaska, the oil threatens a huge area of particularly vulnerable coast. Louisiana is the largest producer of seafood in the lower 48 states, providing half the country’s shrimp catches, two out of every five of its oysters, and more than a third of its blue claw crabs.
And its three million acres of wetlands – 40 per cent of the US total – provide vital nurseries and spawning areas for fish. Over 70 per cent of the country’s waterfowl use the wetlands as resting or wintering areas, and all 110 of its species of migratory neo-tropical songbirds also rely on them. In all, some 400 species – including whales and endangered turtles – are threatened by the spill.
As much as 90 per cent of the Gulf’s marine species depend on wetlands at some stage in their lives, and most of them are in Louisiana.
As luck would have it, it has also come at a particularly bad time of year, at the peak spawning time for fish and for bird nesting and migration. And the timing is also dreadful for President Obama, who just this month opened up vast areas of US coastal waters to oil exploration.
Louisiana oil spill: slick reaches US coast
Oil from a leaking underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico has started washing ashore in the southern US state of Louisiana, amid fears that the slick could become the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.
Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico ‘could be worse than Exxon Valdez disaster’
BP struggles to stop crude pouring from well a mile under the sea as growing slick menaces US coastline
By David Usborne, US Editor
The first coating of oil from a growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico was expected to reach the US shoreline last night, despite frantic efforts by the United States and BP to halt its drift and avert the threat of an environmental calamity not seen since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.
The US Coast Guard and the oil firm were leading the bid to limit the spread of slick, fed by oil leaking from broken well pipes one mile under the sea at an estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day – five times greater than initial estimates. But the White House last night served notice that BP, whose rig exploded last week and then sank, must foot the bill for the entire clean-up.
With three leaks detected near the sea, the spill could eventually match the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, when 11 million gallons gushed from a crippled tanker into an Alaskan sound, devastating the local habitat. In fact, it could prove even more serious, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, told reporters. “The Valdez was a knowable quantity of oil because it was a ship. This is a well,” she said.
Michael McCarthy: This couldn’t have happened at a worse time or a worse place
The Gulf oil spill could not have occurred at a worse time or a worse place, environmentally, a United States expert on the region said last night.
The gigantic slick is likely to hit marine and coastal wildlife at the height of the breeding season, said Aaron Viles, the campaign director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network.
“We are very concerned, especially if you look at it in terms of sensitive and threatened species,” Mr Viles told The Independent. “BP’s oil drilling disaster couldn’t have happened at a worse spot at a worse time of the year.”
Among the deep-water species for which there is great anxiety are sperm whales, because the Gulf of Mexico population have their primary feeding grounds in the “Mississippi canyon” – a deep water trench 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana which is five miles wide and 75 miles long.
This is where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which exploded and sank a week ago beginning the colossal oil spill, was located. There are thought to be only about 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf, in a population which is classed as endangered.
There is also great concern for the western Atlantic population of the bluefin tuna, which is the world’s most sought-after fish because of the Japanese demand for it for use in sushi and sashimi.
Just as the eastern Atlantic population of Thunnus thynnus breeds only in the Mediterranean, where its population is thought to be on the brink of collapse from overfishing, so the western Atlantic population breeds only in the Gulf of Mexico – and it is spawning at the moment.
“The primary season is right now,” Mr Viles said. “This is a horrible time.”
Besides marine mammals and fish, marine reptiles are also threatened: three of the world’s seven species of marine turtle breed in the Gulf, the green, the loggerhead, and the Kemp’s Ridley, the latter being the rarest of all, officially classed as critically endangered and nesting only on Gulf of Mexico beaches, mainly in Mexico itself, but also on the shore of Texas. (Nearly all of the Kemp’s Ridley turtles in the world nest on a single beach, Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas).
But the concern for deep-water marine life is, if anything, exceeded by fears for what the oil slick will do if its hits the shoreline along the four Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
At the moment it looks like the black tide will, if not prevented, come ashore at the Birdfoot Delta, the estuary where the Mississippi river enters the sea.
But there are fears that it may affect the coastline all the way east to Florida. “This is an oil slick the size of Jamaica,” Mr Viles said. “We have never seen an oil spill of this magnitude, and it is likely to be the worst ecological disaster ever to hit the northern Gulf coast.”
Birds that nest on the shores and in the marshes of the coastline are likely to be hit by the oil, such as the brown pelican, whose population crashed in the 1970s because of pesticides, and which only came off the US endangered species list late last year.
Another species in the firing line is the least tern, a charming bird closely related to the little terns of Britain and Europe.
In a further dangerous twist, also at risk are the migratory birds which are currently pouring into North America from the neotropics of Central and South America where they have spent the winter: millions of them cross the Gulf from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and the first place they make landfall is the Gulf coast itself.
The oil slick also presents, of course, a substantial commercial threat to wildlife – especially to the oyster and shrimp fisheries which, along the North-Central Gulf coast alone, are thought to be worth $3bn a year. “The fishermen are likely to have their worst year ever,” Mr Viles said.
Gulf wildlife endangered
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
The smallest of the eight species of pelican, the brown pelican nests in colonies, often on small islands, along the coastlines from Washington and Virginia in the north to the mouth of the Amazon in the south. In the 1970s, the birds suffered a severe population decline because of the use of pesticides.
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
The largest of the toothed whales, the creature on which Moby Dick, “the great white whale” in Herman Melville’s story, was based. The sperm whale lives on squid, for which it can dive as deep as 10,000 feet. It can be 70 feet long and weigh as much as 50 tons.
Western Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)
The bluefin is one of the world’s most sought-after fish, prized for its flesh, especially in Japan, where it is a prime ingredient of sushi and sashimi. The Eastern Atlantic bluefin spawns in the Mediterranean, where overfishing has nearly driven it to extinction; the Western Atlantic form spawns only in the Gulf.
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Green turtles are mostly herbivorous. Their meat and eggs are considered delicacies in many countries, so hunting has devastated green turtle populations around the world. There is an important population in the Gulf.
On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez, en route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The vessel was traveling outside normal shipping lanes in an attempt to avoid ice. Within six hours of the grounding, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons of its 53 million gallon cargo of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. Eight of the eleven tanks on board were damaged. The oil would eventually impact over 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making the Exxon Valdez the largest oil spill to date in U.S. waters.
The response to the Exxon Valdez involved more personnel and equipment over a longer period of time than did any other spill in U.S. history. Logistical problems in providing fuel, meals, berthing, response equipment, waste management and other resources were one of the largest challenges to response management. At the height of the response, more than 11,000 personnel, 1,400 vessels and 85 aircraft were involved in the cleanup.