The Skywriter

Guest blog: Crude awakening in the Gulf

3
May

Guest blog: Crude awakening in the Gulf

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By Toni Reale, Coastal Program Coordinator at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), and cross-posted with their permission from their blog. -- Luis

This morning, coastal residents in Louisiana will wake to uncertainty as ribbons of oily sheen wash into their estuaries and onto their beaches. The ongoing ecological catastrophe in the Gulf is stirring up all-too-familiar feelings of anxiety over future livelihoods; this time not from a natural disaster, but a man-made one. Many are just now recovering from the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina and are overwhelmed that this spill has the potential to set them back years if not forever.

Coastal communities, businesses and the state’s economically vital industries such as fishing, shrimping and tourism in Louisiana are preparing for the worst, and they are not alone. Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have joined Louisiana in declaring a state of emergency as officials say that the spill could reach the other Gulf states as early as today.

Weather and Currents Spell Trouble for other Gulf States and Beyond

loopcurrentA decline in favorable weather and wave conditions could make clean-up efforts difficult. Reports indicate that strong southeasterly winds will continue thorough the weekend, pushing large amounts of oil into eastern Louisiana and towards the Mississippi line. Coastal communities in Mississippi might expect oil to begin lapping up onshore as early as Saturday night. Weather reports indicate that these strong winds will soften by Monday, which unfortunately could send the oil to the Florida Panhandle by Tuesday.

A top concern is that the oil spill could get caught up in the loop current which flows around the western side of Florida, through the Florida Straits and up into the Gulf Stream. Although this could take weeks, oil could be transported all the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A fa- reaching spill like this would be declared a national emergency.

Desperate Situations Call for Dangerous Tactics; or Do They?

nationalgeochemicaldispersantIn addition to BP’s earlier attempt of setting a test fire to portions of the spill, other last ditch mitigation measures are being used that are said to be just as dangerous as the oil spill itself. Over 1000,000 gallons (largest deployment in US history) of chemical dispersants, of which the long term impacts on wildlife are not yet known, have been released by plane over some of the spill. The chemical formula of the dispersants is proprietary, however a safety sheet indicates that the one of the compounds used is associated with human side-effects such as vomiting and reproductive issues.

A National Resource Council report (.pdf) that evaluated chemical dispersal techniques stated that using these chemicals is “one of the most difficult decisions that oil spill responders and natural resources managers face during a spill.” These dispersants do not eliminate the oil, they essentially cause it to leave the surface and move deeper into the water column.

“Dispersant only alters the destination of the toxic compounds in the oil,” redirecting its impact from feathered and fur-bearing animals on shore to organisms in the water column itself and on the seafloor, said Richard Charter, senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife.”

Other tactics that BP will try to use to control the spill include lowering 100-ton domes on top of the leaking pipes to funnel oil up to storage vessels (this method has only really been used at depths less than 350 feet; the leaks are nearly a mile down) and drilling a relief well (same technique that took more than two months to work in last year’s Australian blowout).

Potential to be the Worst Ecological Disaster in U.S. History

To provide a glimpse of the scale of this clean-up effort, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano stated that 50 vessels and aircraft have been deployed and nearly 175,000 feet of booms laid to protect sensitive areas. Additionally, over 18,000 barrels of an “oily mixture” have been skimmed from the surface ocean and two command centers have been opened and activated. However, despite all the continual efforts being made by BP and the military, it is entirely possible that this leak will continue to spew out at least 210,000 gallons/day for another three months rivaling the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Curious to visualize what 210,000 gallons/day looks like?

“Despite spending $2 billion dollars and using every known clean-up method there was, they recovered 8 percent of the spilled Exxon Valdez oil,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based ocean conservation organization. “That is typical of these exercises when you have a large marine oil spill. You’re doing really great if you [get] 20 percent.”

Impacts to wildlife are already being felt in the Gulf as rescuers cleaned their fist oil-covered bird on Friday. The top ten animals most at risk due to this spill include: the North Atlantic blue fin tuna; sea turtles, sharks, marine mammals, brown pelican, oysters, shrimp, marsh-dwelling fish, shore birds and migratory song birds. Experts say that the spill could impact 400 species as at least 10 wildlife reserves are in the direct path of the spill.

Secret NOAA Memo Describes Potential New Leaks Orders of Magnitude Greater

On Friday, a reporter discovered a memo that describes a potential new worst-case scenario for the spill. Apparently, this scenario would involve the loss of the wellhead and associated piping that is currently restricting the flow to 5,000 barrels per day. This leaked memo raises new very grave concerns involving an order of magnitude more oil gushing out of the sea floor; something to the tune of a heart-stopping “50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day”.

The following is not public,” reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response document dated April 28. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.”

White House Won’t Back Down from Expansion Plans

Surprisingly, in light of this ongoing catastrophic spill (and pleas from fellow Democrats), President Obama has decided NOT to scrap his short-sighted plans for the expansion of domestic offshore drilling. In an announcement on Friday, he stated that no new leases would be granted until the investigation of the Deepwater explosion has been conducted. The President also stated that no new leases would be awarded without safety measures to prevent another Deepwater disaster. Some say that this was merely a gesture considering there are no new leases on the table for months if not longer. Perhaps this is political posturing as Obama’s bipartisan efforts for climate and energy legislation are in jeopardy.

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