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CATASTROPHE IN THE gulf of Mexico:
devastation persists

It’s been four years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and unleashing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. More than 200 million gallons of oil fouled the ocean and Gulf coastlines, while the Center for Biological Diversity began decisive action to expose illegal activities and lax offshore drilling regulation.

  • A Center study shows that more than 82,000 birds; about 6,000 sea turtles; nearly 26,000 marine mammals, including dolphins; and an unknown, massive number of fish and invertebrates may have been harmed by the spill and its aftermath.
  • The spill oiled more than 1,000 miles of shoreline.
  • More than 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants were sprayed into the Gulf, which may be making waters more toxic for species.
  • Offshore drilling projects are still moving forward — without the implementation of at least 10 regulatory reforms identified by the Center as critical for avoiding another oil-spill catastrophe.

Since our action in the early days of the spill, the Center remains on the front lines of this still-unfolding catastrophe because — despite the massive scope of the Gulf disaster — many of the fundamental dangers associated with offshore drilling remain unaddressed.

We’ve launched 12 lawsuits and ratcheted up the pressure on politicians to reform offshore oversight, halt dangerous drilling, save imperiled species and hold the federal government and BP accountable.

Beyond the Gulf, the Center continues to fight to the dangers of offshore drilling, especially in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be disastrous. We’re pushing for a permanent ban on offshore projects in Alaska and opposing the Obama administration’s new offshore drilling plan, the largest offshore expansion in 30 years.

Meanwhile, scientists say it could be years before the full extent of the BP spill's damage to the Gulf region’s complex and sensitive ecosystems will be known.

Marine ecosystems continue to face the threat of more spills as oil companies and their friends in Congress look to gloss over the mistakes that led to the Gulf disaster and ramp up industrial offshore drilling.

Thousands of you have contributed to the Center’s success against offshore drilling so far — but the job is far from done. We still need your support and action to help us protect species in the Gulf, the Arctic and beyond to make sure a disaster like the one sparked by the explosion at Deepwater Horizon never happens again.

 

How much oil was spilled?
What areas are affected?

What species are harmed?
Who is responsible?
FAQ – dispersants
What if a spill occurs in the Arctic?
Are oil spills inevitable?
How often do oil spills occur?
What can I do?

HOW MUCH OIL WAS SPILLED?

The BP disaster was by far the worst oil disaster in U.S. history. It spewed as much oil in just days as the entire Exxon Valdez spill and eclipsed the notorious Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, which leaked 138 million gallons of crude. Astoundingly, BP flatly refused to help scientists gather the information necessary to determine just how much oil was really spewing into the Gulf ecosystem. But government estimates of up to 2.6 million gallons per day put the total as high as 205.8 million.

WHAT AREAS HAVE BEEN AFFECTED?

Surface oil slicks and sheens believed to be associated with the BP spill affected thousands of square miles, with oil and tar reaching the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In a desperate attempt to keep the visible surface slick in check, BP flooded the ocean’s surface and depths with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical “dispersants.” These chemicals can actually make oil more toxic to ocean life. Corexit, the brand used by BP, was even banned in the United Kingdom. These chemicals bind with oil droplets so that they become “dispersed” by currents. Scientists believe that BP’s excessive use of dispersants caused enormous underwater oil plumes in the Gulf, one of which was 22 miles long and six miles wide.

Read more about dispersants and see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s oil-impact assessment maps.

WHAT SPECIES HAVE BEEN HARMED?

The BP oil spill is still affecting some of the most productive and fragile marine ecosystems in the United States. About 25 percent of the nation’s wetlands lie in the Mississippi River Delta, providing habitat for nesting seabirds and resting migratory birds. The Gulf itself is home to dozens of threatened and endangered species, as well as commercially important fish, crab and shrimp that provide much of the basis of the Gulf Coast economy.

While the response to the oil spill largely focused on stopping oil from reaching shore, the offshore ecosystem — from plankton to dolphins —suffered devastating impacts. Endangered sperm whales and dolphins were spotted passing through the oil slick — which has spoiled critical habitat for the federally protected piping plover on the Chandeleur Islands. Oiled gannets and brown pelicans were the first victims discovered by response teams; the goo permeated mangroves and has soaked birds and their eggs. Heavy oil also soaked the Queen Bess Island pelican rookery, a nesting site that has been essential to the recovery of the brown pelican population, and experts worry that the spill could set back the Louisiana state bird’s recovery from near-extinction. The timing of the spill could not have been worse.

Imperiled species including the Atlantic bluefin tuna, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers and sperm whales were flocking to the Gulf to spawn, migrate and feed just as the spill happened. For many of them, there was nowhere else to go. And in a disturbing development, large numbers of sharks, fish and other marine animals were seen gathered in shallow inshore waters, believed to be seeking areas where oxygen hasn’t been depleted by oil and the microbes that eat it. Marine animals can die when oxygen levels in the water drop below two parts per million — which was observed even in some inshore areas. Moreover, creatures congregating near the shore risked getting trapped between shore and the oil and depleting oxygen levels in even these refuge areas.

During spill-response efforts, concern arose that sea turtles were in oiled sargassum mats that were lit afire to burn off the oil. During June 2010, the Center initiated litigation on multiple fronts to prevent the injury and death of sea turtles during controlled burn operations, which resulted in requirements for observers to rescue sea turtles from this unnecessary and brutal threat. Read more.

Read more about threatened species and see our July 23, 2010 map of the spill and nearby critical habitat.

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE?

1. The Bush administration. The oil-drilling lease was sold to BP by the George W. Bush administration in 2007 under its 2007–2012 Five-Year Offshore Oil-drilling Plan.

2. The Obama administration. The actual exploratory drilling was approved by the Obama administration on April 6, 2009.

Within days of the 2009 approval, the Center and our allies won a court order vacating the Bush Five-Year Offshore Oil-drilling Plan. Rather than use the court order as a timeout on new offshore oil drilling to develop a new plan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar filed a special motion with the court to exempt approved oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He specifically identified BP’s operation as one that should be released from the vacatur.

In July 2009, the court agreed to Salazar’s request, releasing all approved offshore oil drilling — including the BP operation — from the vacatur.

3. BP. BP has the worst environmental and safety record of any oil company operating in America. Even after the 2005 Texas City Refinery blast that killed 15 people, BP has continued to rack up safety violations. Despite the dangerous nature of all offshore oil drilling and BP’s own egregious safety record, the company’s exploration plan downplayed the possibility of a spill, repeatedly asserting that it was unlikely or virtually impossible. Amazingly, Secretary Salazar’s Minerals and Management Service approved BP’s exploration plan without any consideration of the environmental consequences of an oil spill.

4. The oil industry and its political backers. The Gulf crisis shows that the glib safety claims of the oil industry cannot be trusted.

There’s no way to guarantee that a massive oil rupture will not occur. And if one does occur, there’s no way to contain it quickly and fully enough to avert unacceptable environmental damage.

Ultimately, it’s the inherently dangerous nature of offshore oil drilling that led to this disaster. That’s why the Center is calling on the Obama administration to 1) revoke its 2010 decision to open up Alaska, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil drilling; 2) revoke all leases to drill off Alaska, including those held by Shell Oil; 3) not permit any new offshore drilling anywhere; and 3) transition the nation away from fossil fuel so the pressure to continue offshore oil drilling dissipates.

WHAT IF A SPILL OCCURS IN THE ARCTIC?

The Gulf of Mexico has by far the largest, best-equipped, most experienced oil spill-containment system in the nation. It has hundreds of experienced volunteer fishing boats at its disposal. The water is warm year round and relatively calm except in hurricane season. Wildlife rehab and cleanup crews have access to a road system in close proximity to much of the shoreline. Yet with all these advantages, the government and the oil industry were unable to contain the spill.

Imagine what would happen if a similar spill occurred in the Arctic — 140 miles from land. In subzero temperatures. With miles of sea ice to hack through, ship-killing icebergs in all directions, and darkness for 20 hours a day in the winter.

It would be a disaster many magnitudes worse than what we’re suffering in the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s no way to clean up a massive oil spill in the broken-ice conditions that prevail in these Arctic areas for much of the year. In fact, the ice-free drilling season is so short in the Arctic — July to early October — that leaking oil from a similar accident there could continue to gush for an entire winter while efforts to drill a relief well were necessarily postponed.

The Arctic and its wildlife got an important reprieve in early 2011 when Royal Dutch Shell announced it would not go forward with plans to drill in the summer of 2011 in polar bear critical habitat in Alaska. The plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea had long been opposed by the Center and other conservation groups. But in 2012, Shell started enacting its drilling plans. The Center is calling on the Department of the Interior to permanently take that area out of consideration for future drilling.

Meanwhile, BP has suspended its controversial and dangerous “Liberty” project that was exposed The New York Times. The oil company, relying on untested technologies, was planning to drill the world’s largest horizontal well off the Alaska coast. The project is now on hold and the Center is urging that it be taken off the table permanently.

It’s imperative that drilling never go forward if we’re to prevent an Arctic oil-spill catastrophe that could be even worse than the Gulf disaster, threatening the polar bear, Pacific walrus; ringed, spotted, bearded, and ribbon seals; cetaceans like the North Pacific right whale, bowhead whale and Cook Inlet beluga; migratory birds; and many other species.

ARE OIL SPILLS INEVITABLE?

Yes — as long as offshore oil drilling exists. We can and should improve spill-prevention technology, but no technology will ever be 100-percent effective. The oil industry, Department of the Interior, and oil-state politicians told us for years that oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was completely safe. BP refused to even consider the effects of a catastrophic leak in its drilling plan because it said the likelihood was too remote to imagine. The Department of the Interior agreed, approving the plan without even conducting an environmental review. They were all wrong.

If we drill for oil offshore, we will suffer oil leaks. Many will be small, some big, and occasionally, one will be catastrophically large, like the one in the Gulf.

HOW OFTEN DO OIL SPILLS OCCUR?

Oil spills happen every single year. Large spills happen every few years, from the 1969 offshore oil-platform catastrophe that dumped 3 million gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel to the April 6, 2010, spilling of 18,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s Delta National Wildlife Refuge — from a ruptured BP pipeline — to the cataclysmic April 20 spill.

Indeed, the U.S. Minerals Management Service has cavalierly assumed that nine large oil spills and 600 small oil spills will occur in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of its 2007–2012 program.

Click here for a timeline of major spills in the Gulf and other U.S. waters.

WHAT CAN I DO?

It’s easy to feel helpless about the impacts of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and all the issues surrounding it, from habitat destruction to dirty fossil fuels leading us toward climate catastrophe. At the same time, we have an opportunity to stop offshore oil drilling once and for all. You can get involved to save species, the global climate, and the oceans and all their inhabitants — get up-to-the-minute info on climate change issues, dirty fossil fuel disasters and what's happening in the beleaguered Gulf region now on the Center’s Twitter page.

Deepwater Horizon photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard