Five Years after Deepwater Horizon, Arctic Drilling Okayed

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 26, 2015 20
Five species of sea turtles live in the Gulf, and all of them are listed as threatened or endangered by the Endangered Species Act. About 500 have been found dead in the spill region every year since 2011. What’s unknown is how many turtles died at sea and were never recovered by scientists. ©Colby J. Brokvist

The five species of sea turtles that live in the Gulf are all listed as threatened or endangered. About 500 have been found dead in the spill region every year since 2011. What’s unknown is how many turtles died at sea and were never recovered by scientists. ©Colby J. Brokvist

Just over five years ago, on the evening of April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded off the coast of Louisiana, rupturing the Macondo exploration well below it. For the next 86 days, until BP finally capped the well, at least 3.19 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and touched the shores of five states. It was the largest marine oil spill in history.

In the weeks following the spill, BP siphoned off 810,000 barrels of oil at the wellhead before it entered the Gulf, pumped 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant into the Gulf’s waters, lit 411 surface fires, deployed miles of absorbent floating booms, and enlisted tens of thousands of workers and volunteers to clean beaches. In all, the company is expected to spend $31.5 billion in restitution.

But where is the rest of the oil today? And now—even with stricter regulations in place—is it safe to green-light other offshore oil enterprises to help alleviate our rising energy demands?

In the South: a lasting legacy of the worst kind?

More than 6,000 birds died in the Gulf after the BP oil spill. ‬©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It turns out that nature itself appears to have given BP a hand with the cleanup. Bacteria that evolved specifically to feed on the million or so barrels’ worth of oil that naturally seeps from the Gulf floor each year quickly consumed many of the alkanes (saturated hydrocarbons) found in the crude. Six months after the well was capped, the plume had disappeared.

But oil is a complex mixture, and other hydrocarbons were left behind. In the months following the spill, the toll on wildlife proved to be astounding: nearly 7,000 animals were found dead, including more than 6,000 birds, 600 sea turtles and 100 mammals. Just as the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were coming back from the brink of extinction, they may have been hit the hardest. Because the spill happened in a foraging area and migratory route for sea turtles, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of them may have encountered the oil. Roughly 500 sea turtle deaths were recorded in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in the northern Gulf, which is as many as five times more than normal.

The Mississippi River Delta is an area where countless numbers of birds, fish and other wildlife species feed and reproduce. The spill occurred in April, at breeding time, exposing vulnerable young and larvae to toxins from the oil and other chemicals. How this will affect marine life over a longer period of time is not yet known, but studies of how the toxins are working their way up the food chain are currently being conducted.

Five years later, people are suffering, too. Oil remains in the estuaries, marshes and ocean. Tens of thousands of coastal residents have developed symptoms associated with oil exposure, such as cardiovascular issues, memory loss, organ degradation and respiratory problems. Two big research projects are underway: the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is conducting a 10-year study, which will monitor 33,000 cleanup workers and coastal residents. It the largest such study in history. And a five-year project by a consortium of five universities is measuring polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels in subsistence-fishing communities. Of course, proving a link between such health issues and the BP oil spill could take years.

Yet, earlier this month the Obama administration granted conditional approval to Shell to begin oil drilling in the Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska.

Shell is currently conducting exploratory oil drilling missions in Arctic waters.

In the North: a disaster waiting to happen?

According to World Wildlife Fund, the Arctic is estimated to hold the planet’s largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves. A significant proportion of these reserves lie offshore, in the Arctic’s shallow and biologically productive shelf seas. If a spill should happen here, the difficult conditions of the Arctic—and its distance from where response capacity is stationed—means it will take days or weeks to respond, even during ice-free periods. And, to date, we have no proven, effective method for containing and cleaning up an oil spill in icy water.

However, on May 11, 2015, citing “rigorous safety standards” and a long review process, the Interior Department granted conditional approval to Shell to begin oil drilling off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. Several environmental conditions still need to be met, including a sign-off from agencies assessing the impact on endangered species and approval from state agencies. It’s the first major exploratory drilling plan in the U.S. since the BP Deepwater explosion.

The New York Times states that President Obama has pursued the most ambitious environmental agenda of any president, but he has sought to balance those moves by opening up untouched federal waters to new oil and gas drilling. Shell claims that developing Arctic resources could be essential to securing enough energy supplies for our future, quoting a U.S. Geological Survey study that estimates that the Arctic could hold about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves. The Interior Department has significantly strengthened and updated drilling regulations since the BP spill and proposed new rules to tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the devices that are the last line of protection against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.

It’s a complicated question: is drilling for oil in the Arctic worth the risk? ©Ralph Lee Hopkins

The 2010 BP explosion was caused, in part, when a section of drill pipe buckled, leading to the malfunction of a blowout preventer. Some say the new regulations fix this problem and that while the challenges of recovering oil in the Arctic are many, allowing drilling to take place only in the summer months and in shallow waters not more than 140 feet deep (the Deepwater Horizon well was in water about 5,000 feet deep) will surmount them.

Today, no one is really sure how much oil from the BP spill is still out there in the Mississippi River Delta. What we have learned is that Corexit, the dispersant pumped into the water shortly after the explosion, made the oil more edible to fish and plankton, which otherwise don’t consume it. And there is some evidence that the chemical actually hindered degradation, allowing more hydrocarbons to remain in the Gulf.

Perhaps all we know, five years after the Deepwater Horizon debacle, is that we still are gathering up the unknowns.

Do you think drilling for oil in the Arctic is worth the risk? Would you rather depend on foreign oil? Is getting the country off oil entirely in the next few decades realistic?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

20 Comments »

  1. Rebecca Fay June 2, 2015 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Excellent article Candice, I have read quite a few of your articles and loved them all. In my opinion, no, we shouldn’t drill in the Arctic, no matter what. There is no safety measures that can account for everything, and this is too fragile an ecosystem and a very precious one as well. We need to protect it at all costs. We shouldn’t even be worrying about where we will get our oil in the future, we, Shell included, should be working on ways to live without it, and yes the technology is already here, we just need to insist on it being used. The government subsidizes so many things that are so outdated and unnecessary, shouldn’t they be subsidizing the production of affordable electric cars, or helping those with low incomes afford them? Things like this aggravate me no end. The recent Gaviota oil spill is near me, and there were people on the beach a couple days afterward that were trying to clean the beach by putting oil in large buckets with shovels and their hands! No Hazmat gear, no gloves even. How could this happen? Where was Plains All American Oil Pipelines? They should have had teams all up and down the beach working to clean up the spill! For days, they even turned away volunteers stating they were still assessing the spill!?? I trained with Oiled Wildlife Care Network, and would love to be at the facility in San Pedro working with International Bird Rescue, but I am not working and can’t afford lodging, and it is mostly volunteers doing this work. I have been a volunteer avian rehabilitator for 10 + years, and feel that at least my expenses should be covered so that I can help. Anyway, this shouldn’t have happened. PAAOP got out of putting a shutoff valve on this pipe, due to some technicality, and now we have 105,000 gallons of oil to deal with on our coastline. This company should be an example of why we shouldn’t even consider drilling in the Arctic.

  2. Natalie Bureau May 30, 2015 at 4:39 am - Reply

    Couldn’t have said it any better Julie.

  3. Julie Rose May 29, 2015 at 11:27 am - Reply

    There is a reason the arctic is inhospitable and uninhabitable to man. It holds a history of natural resources untouched and should remain that way. We must open our eyes to the reality; pulling natural resources (oil and groundwater) does not come without consequence (see United States northwest region water reserves for example). History without change repeats itself. Valdez oil spill, gulf oil spill, not to mention the (roughly) 4,000 off shore rigs in the gulf of Mexico not talked about: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/06mexico/background/oil/oil.html
    Your question; do we believe we should drill in the Arctic or purchase oil overseas? Where is the 3rd option? Alternative energy. I am located in the sun-shine state; Florida, USA, where the sun shines pretty much 300+ days a year from sun up to sun down and is prime for alternative energy. How is it that Germany, Switzerland and Australia are aggressively leading the alternative energy movement and we are behind? France makes soy-based plastics, Australia 100% solar power-grid supplies 30,000 houses energy (unfortunately the grid was shut down b/c of politics) Oil, in the name of energy is not an either-or, it is an either-and. Let’s consider the possibilities that we do not need as much oil as we once did because we are creative and engineer alternative means of energy.

  4. crone wolf May 28, 2015 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Have we learned?

  5. Brenda Robinson May 28, 2015 at 9:30 am - Reply

    This is not okay. NO to artic drilling!

  6. Robert Bennett May 28, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

    According to World Wildlife Fund, the Arctic is estimated to hold the planet’s largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves. A significant proportion of these reserves lie offshore, in the Arctic’s shallow and biologically productive shelf seas. If a spill should happen here, the difficult conditions of the Arctic—and its distance from where response capacity is stationed—means it will take days or weeks to respond, even during ice-free periods. And, to date, we have no proven, effective method for containing and cleaning up an oil spill in icy water.

  7. Yvonne Winter May 28, 2015 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Sad but true Rick.

  8. Rick Asensio May 28, 2015 at 9:27 am - Reply

    We must remember that there are some in oil companies that truly believe it is their right to operate in an amoral vacuum.

  9. Neville Burns May 27, 2015 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Perhaps nothing! Shell and other similar companies don’t seem to ever look past the profit line and have no concern for damage they have caused.

  10. Shinann Earnshaw May 27, 2015 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    Absolutely not! Shell should in no way be allowed to drill in the Arctic. This decision by the Obama administration is their worst decision ever. I can’t believe that will all the rhetoric by the president that he is allowing this. We should ban oil drilling in the oceans altogether.

  11. Chantal Cooke May 27, 2015 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Good article. Very interesting. Thank you.

  12. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban May 27, 2015 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Threatened and non-threatened species should be protected because tomorrow non-threatened too will become threatened due to shortage of food, farmland, deforestation, mining, agriculture, etc.

  13. Dr Paul Vare May 27, 2015 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Hmm, tricky one, sounds like your comparing apples and oranges Candice. The major risk factor in the Horizon case was depth; drilling in the Chukchi Sea is shallower so no problem by comparison. The major risk in the Arctic is moving pack ice – totally different threat and one that has not been resolved. By all means campaign against this desperate quest but I suspect the millions of tiny voices will be shut out by larger strategies. On a pragmatic level, Shell need to share what they know – and what they don’t know – about cleaning up oil spills on ice (as far as I’m aware their only solution so far is burning it off) and they should invite others to critique their efforts. Corporate secrecy is the biggest threat to the fragile Arctic environment and I’m concerned that Shell are being driven that way by our global petitions.

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews May 27, 2015 at 9:42 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Dr. Vare. I believe I did mention that “Some say the new regulations fix this problem and that while the challenges of recovering oil in the Arctic are many, allowing drilling to take place only in the summer months and in shallow waters not more than 140 feet deep (the Deepwater Horizon well was in water about 5,000 feet deep) will surmount them.” The big question in this article is: should we consider offshore oil drilling at all, anywhere, or work to get off oil and commit to more sustainable energy sources? Thanks, again, for your comment.—C.G.A.

  14. Dale Eley, CHST May 27, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

    We must find a way to extract reserves without damaging the environment. It will require all hands on deck. We must move away from narrow and short sighted thinking on numerous issues that affect the quality of life.

  15. Thomas Sawyer May 27, 2015 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Interesting questions you pose, and many answers will depend on one’s perspective, knowledge, background, and experience as an environmentalist, lobbyist, regulator, technical expert in each specific area of chemical hazards, everyday citizen, and of course, politicians. And another dilemma for the co-existence between man and nature. Who wins? Sometimes nobody. Who should take precedence? Nature and the environment of course!

    I have often heard another question that is similarly relevant-are all accidents preventable? Another “not-so-easy” question. One large hurdle I have read about, heard about, and discussed, is the ability to 1) build a safe, compliant, environmental friendly, and sustainable facility, 2) attempting to identify and correct human error or equipment failures due to a wide range of possibilities, and 3) maintaining those facilities in a prudent, and safety/environmentally required manner.

    If we rely on foreign oil, we automatically become as equally reliant on their demands, regardless of what or how much they are. The answer then lies within upcoming generations as much as it does now; we must find logical and safe ways to eliminate our dependency on both foreign oil as well continuing our search for alternative fuel sources-not an impossible task, just politically and economically motivated. But even through smart, strategic planning, such a task is not only daunting, but very time consuming as well. Is getting off oil in a few decades realistic? Hard to say-there is so much to be done with creating a nation-wide infrastructure for whatever alternative fuel sources become available will be one of the greatest challenges we face. Time will tell………

  16. Natalie Bureau May 27, 2015 at 9:25 am - Reply

    I don’t think Arctic Drilling is a good idea.

  17. Florian Kaefer, PhD May 27, 2015 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Still scary – so much at stake.

  18. Yogita May 26, 2015 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    Environmental issues are crucial . Look at the
    Weather changing globally ! Oil spills are the worst
    Known threats for ocean life and environment in general. I think untouched natural habitat should be
    Left alone for the ocean life.
    And if they really have to drill they better have an action plan well before they begin . Oil spills being man made hazards they could be avoided altogether .

    I have known of place where a beautiful ocean front beach in India was completely turned into a concrete ground for drilling by shell . This happens to be my dad’s hometown . When I went back to India after almost 10 years the beach that I visited as a kid was
    No longer there !! There was a highway built . I asked my cousins where did the ocean disappear..? The ground I was walking on was hard filled ground miles and miles into the ocean where once we dipped in the ocean water. It was hard to believe my own eyes. I questioned my self ,” Could this really be possible? ”
    Unfortunately it was . It had actually happened. I know places change . But to this magnitude ?
    This is what some very irresponsible companies and governments do together .
    I hope the world sees though all this . Spraying concrete and rubble in the oceans to make islands ! What are we really doing ? The engineers are commended for exceptional expertise in building man made islands. But what is it doing to the ocean life ?
    Nature balances itself most times . But when we keep messing with it, it forgets what to do next .

  19. Jennifer May 26, 2015 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    It’s a tough call. Personally, I believe that switching to all-renewable energy sources is best for everyone over the long term. Unfortunately, those decisions and policies are in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom are not educated enough about such matters. And those politicians are also in a position to stifle environmental education.

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