Photo: Sarah West
2010 marked a changing point both for the Gulf and for me personally. There is a distinct dividing line ̶ before the disaster and after the disaster. I’ve now worked for Ocean Conservancy for over three years and, as I look forward to the potential opportunities that will arise to make the Gulf healthier, stronger and more resilient. I find myself hopeful. Many times it takes a tragedy or a disaster to make us appreciate what we have. I took the Gulf and all the things it offered throughout my life for granted. Now more than ever I want to protect, preserve and restore this beautiful place. The long road to restoration won’t be a walk in the park. In fact, it will be a marathon.
As impacts emerge, I’m reminded that, even though the oil has stopped flowing, the harmful effects will be felt for years to come. Over the course of the last year, three important stories have emerged about impacts to the Gulf ecosystem:
- Dolphins in Barataria Bay are showing severe signs of poor health;
- An area of 24 square kilometers at the bottom of the Gulf surrounding the blowout site was severely impacted; and
- Multiple studies have been conducted to determine how oil impacts offshore marine fish, such as bluefin tuna.
Photo: Laronna Doggett
This week, as we recall the moment that the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef just off the coast of a sleepy Alaska fishing town 25 years ago, a similar scene unfolds on the other side of the country. Under heavy fog, a barge traveling through Galveston Bay, Texas, collided with another ship and leaked an alarming amount of oil into the bay from its 168,000-gallon fuel tank. Due to bad weather, the oil is spreading quickly and has been spotted as far as 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Response teams are busy trying to contain the oil on the water’s surface with boom and skimmers, but the damage has already been done. Spring is a crucial time for bird migrations in Texas, with an estimated 50,000 shorebirds and seabirds roosting at the Bolivar Flats Refuge only two miles from where the spill occurred. Our partners at Audubon and Galveston Bay Foundation are on the ground reporting a number of birds that have been found oiled. The surface oil also poses a threat to dolphins and turtles, which frequently surface in the bay. The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles living in the Gulf nest almost exclusively on the coasts of Texas and Mexico.
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Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.
The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?
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Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons
On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.
After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.
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Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
Residents across the Gulf Coast breathed a sigh of relief last weekend as Tropical Storm Karen dissipated (and as an added bonus, the humidity dropped). But as many of us feared, the storm kicked up more oil in the Gulf as it passed, and a fresh batch of tar balls have washed ashore on Grand Isle, La.
This is an ugly reminder that oil still lurks offshore, and we have not yet seen the end of the oil’s impacts on the Gulf.
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Photo: Ken Cedeno / Ocean Conservancy
The second phase of the trial to determine how much more money BP owes for its Gulf spill begins today. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Phase two of the trial will cover how much oil BP actually discharged into the Gulf of Mexico as well as the effort to cap the well. (Remember the summer of “junk shots” and “top kills?”)
BP says the U.S. government’s estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil is based on “faulty assumptions.” BP says they spilled ONLY about 2.45 million barrels. BP’s estimate of a lower volume is based on the work of London-based professor Martin Blunt, who *ahem* used to work for BP. Either way, that’s a lot of oil, so why the fuss? Penalties for discharging oil (a violation of the Clean Water Act) are based on the amount of oil discharged. A lower volume means a lower penalty—potentially around $7 billion less.
(Click here for an overview of all phases of the trial.)
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Photo © Cheryl Gerber / Ocean Conservancy
The following is an excerpt from a post that first appeared on National Geographic’s Ocean Views:
If we hope to meet the future resource demands of a growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us, we must put the ocean at the center of what we do. The ocean provides us with food, energy, transportation, carbon storage and more—it is truly our greatest natural resource.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is a national treasure and a significant driver of the U.S. economy, providing resources for food, recreation and livelihoods.
But the Gulf is still recovering from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as well as decades of ecosystem decline. Restoring this region to health is the only way to ensure that we can enjoy its many benefits for generations to come.
That task lies in the hands of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which just released its “Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy.” This plan is intended to serve as a framework to implement a coordinated, Gulf-wide restoration effort using RESTORE Act funding. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something great for the Gulf.
The Gulf Council’s plan is another small but important step forward in Gulf recovery, but we aren’t there yet.
Click here to read the full post, including Ocean Conservancy’s recommendations for next steps.