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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The BP Oil Spill And The Future

Jessika Walsten |
May 26, 2010 | 4:13 p.m. PDT

Associate News Editor

On April 20, 2009, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, starting one of the biggest
environmental disasters in history. (Creative Commons)

More than a month has passed since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon yet thousands of gallons of oil (no one really knows how much) still leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

By now, if you are like me, you probably feel bombarded with information and on the verge of turning off your TV, computer or radio at the mere mention of BP.

(British Petroleum, aka BP, contracted the drilling rig from Transocean, one of the largest offshore drilling contractors. BP had recently extended its contract with Transocean for an additional three years, which would have begun in September 2010.)

Unfortunately, everything you have heard so far is just the beginning. It will be many years before the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana or even BP fully recover from the spill. And the costs of the spill will continue to rise.

The Valdez, an Exxon oil tanker, crashed into a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound 21 years ago. The reef slashed the hull of the ship sending 11 million gallons of crude oil into the water, contaminating 1,300 miles of coastline and killing thousands of animals.

While the Exxon Valdez at the time was not the worst spill, at least in terms of volume of oil, it did gain worldwide attention for the devastating affects it had on the area's fragile ecosystems. Images of dead animals, birds covered in oil and that murky, putrid water stuck in many people's mind. It also gained attention for Exxon's multiple blunders.

Not many could have foreseen the spill's lasting effects.

Last year the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (that's a mouthful) released a chilling 20-year progress report. While the sound does look nearly as beautiful and pristine as it did before the spill, the area has not fully recovered. Oil from the tanker still lingers in some areas and many species remain below pre-spill levels.

So, you might ask what does this digression have to do with the BP spill?


If Prince William Sound still sees lasting effects 20 years later, what will the Gulf of Mexico and the miles of infected marshland look like 20 years from now? What does that mean for the Gulf's seafood industry?

Answers to those questions remain elusive.

We have not seen anything like this spill before, and we don't even have a good handle on how much oil has spilled. (BP hasn't taken accurate measurements of the leak, because they say it's too difficult.)

The National Wildlife Federation estimated on May 20 that the spill was already eight times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, contaminating more than 70 miles of Louisiana coast. 

Those numbers will grow. But by how much?

Oil from the BP spill has made its way into the loop current, a stream that carries water swiftly around the Gulf of Mexico and connects to the Gulf Stream that shuttles water all the way up to the North Atlantic. This fact has raised concern that the oil will reach the Florida Keys and many of Florida's beaches.

But scientists have had a hard time predicting where the oil will go.

This uncertainty is frightening. We cannot even begin to comprehend the magnitude of what has happened.

Lousiana's oyster harvest has already been affected, forcing the closure of 21 harvest areas so far.  How many more areas will Louisiana have to close, and will Alabama and Mississippi be affected too?

Again, the oil slick's behavior remains unpredictable.

By now, you must think I am beating a dead horse. (Okay...we get it. No one knows what will happen except that it will be big and will last a long, long time.)

But do you?

Craig Tillery, Alaska's deputy attorney general, put it best in the forward he wrote for the 20 year status report on the Exxon Valdez.

"It is unfortunate that it takes a disaster of this magnitude to shake us from our complacency and make us see how greatly nature has blessed us here in Alaska and elsewhere in our great country, and to understand how easily and quickly humans can despoil it," he wrote. "Such an environmental disaster makes us realize how much we depend on our natural world and how much harm reckless acts can inflict on our lives and the lives of our families."

Hopefully, the lessons we learn from the BP catastrophe will actually stick this time.

Video produced by the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Future Society. They took the footage 20 miles
from the Deepwater Horizon site.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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