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Catastrophe in the Gulf: How Bad Could It Get?

Catastrophe in the Gulf: How Bad Could It Get?

By Bryan Walsh, courtesy of TIME


Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

When Captain James Peters kicks his three engines into high gear, hold on to your hat — and your body too, if you don’t want to end up overboard in the Mississippi Delta. Ordinarily on a clear June day like this one, Peters would be taking out a pack of eager sport fishermen from his home port in the southeastern Louisiana town of Venice, a community that proudly bills itself as the fishing capital of the world. But since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 — triggering a spill that is bleeding hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico — there hasn’t been a whole lot of fishing in Louisiana. So instead, Peters has been escorting scientists and environmentalists like Maura Wood, the program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Louisiana coastal program, to see the oil and its effects on the wetlands firsthand.

As the boat roars out of the marshes and into the open water southwest of Venice, Wood and her colleagues pass the oil and gas platforms scattered just beyond the Mississippi Delta, oddly birdlike with their long steel legs and tightly nestled mechanical bodies elevated above the water. It takes a while, but 16 miles (26 km) into the Gulf, Wood finds what she’s looking for: a long band of reddish oil, thick enough to muffle the wake of Peters’ boat. Up close, the petroleum — refracting the punishing Gulf sunlight — looks like a malignant lesion on the skin of the water. Wood puts on a respirator to protect herself from the fumes and drops a hand into the muck. It emerges with brown, sludgy crude clinging to the blue latex of her glove. "You can see how it adheres and what that would mean for the wildlife," she says. "This could mean the destruction of the fabric of life on the Gulf." 

From the day the oil began spewing from energy giant BP’s partially blown well thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf, it was obvious that a major environmental disaster was unfolding. As the weeks passed and BP failed to cap the well, the worst-case scenarios just kept getting worse. By the end of May, according to the best estimates of the daily leakage rate, the well had poured at least 20 million gal. (75 million L) of crude into the Gulf, perhaps much more, making it far and away the worst oil spill in U.S. History — nearly double the output of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. But when BP’s most recent attempt to stop the bleeding — the top-kill method — met with failure on May 29, it became clear that the crisis wouldn’t end for weeks, maybe even months. Though BP announced it would try a cap over the well to divert the spewing oil, its officials admit that even if the new method is successful, about 20% of the oil will continue to leak, at least until a relief well is completed in August.

Gulf Coast Struggles With Oil Spill And Its Economic Costs

Already oil has stained some of the marshes of southern Louisiana — home to 40% of the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. — disrupting the habitats of shorebirds, sea turtles and other threatened species. Beyond the shoreline, by June 2, Washington had banned fishing in more than 37% of the federal Gulf of Mexico waters — more than 88,000 sq. mi. (228,000 sq km) — a body blow to the region’s valuable fishing industry. That’s nearly double the area that was off-limits on May 18, an indication of where the trend lines are pointing. And many scientists believe that the greatest threat could be below the surface, where independent researchers say they’ve found evidence of miles-long plumes of oil potentially poisoning sea life and disrupting the marine food chain.

We take some comfort from the fact that we’ve faced similar crises before. We more or less survived Katrina, didn’t we? But disasters like hurricanes tend to confine their devastation to one or two luckless cities. This time, everyone is going to suffer: 15% of the U.S.’s seafood comes from the Gulf; 14 million people live along a five-state stretch of coast in the path of the oil. BP’s plummeting share price is driving down the rest of the energy sector and dragging on an already battered economy — a nationwide pocketbook effect that will only worsen as thousands of Gulf-region families dependent on fishing and tourism lose their livelihoods.

While BP and Washington fight over the brief cycles of stock prices and overnight polls, the larger effect will be a much longer-lasting burden. "This is something that will impact the environment on the shoreline and on the sea," says Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "And not just for years. This will be felt for generations."

The Kill That Didn’t

BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico

The top-kill method was always going to be a long shot, the last in a series of fallbacks. BP’s first attempt to stop the flow of oil involved using underwater robots to activate the stuck blowout preventer above the well, the shutoff valve that should have engaged automatically when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded. When that failed, BP tried to lower a massive containment dome over the leak to catch the oil as it rose and then pump it to a ship on the surface. But the ultra-cold temperatures 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) below the surface — even in the balmy Gulf of Mexico — generated icy methane hydrate crystals that clogged the dome. A drainage tube 4 in. (10 cm) wide that was inserted into the leaking pipe failed as well, collecting just a fraction of the oil. In each case, BP and the government brain trust advising the company at its Houston command center were defeated by the sheer complexity of attempting such work so deep in the abyss. "The challenge here is working at 5,000 feet," said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, at a May 15 press conference — which raised the question of what BP was doing trying to operate at that depth in the first place.

Despite that series of setbacks, BP officials seemed hopeful that the top-kill method — in which a dense slurry of clay and other minerals would be force-fed down the gullet of the blown-out well — would turn out differently. But that too came to naught as the pressure of the rising oil continually overcame the force of the incoming mud. The procedure was finally abandoned over concerns that continuing to drive thousands of pounds of dense mud into a bleeding wound could weaken the remaining pipes over the well, accelerating the leak. "This scares everybody — the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far," a seemingly helpless Suttles said on May 29.

BP isn’t without a backup to the backup. On June 2 the company undertook what is called a lower-marine-riser-package containment, or LMRP. Robots began slicing off the top of the well’s riser pipe, preparing to place a containment cap over the well itself. In the short term — perhaps a few days from the time the pipe is cut to when the cap is in place — the effort could actually increase the flow of oil by 20%. But if the procedure is successful, which in this crisis would be a first for BP, the LMRP should capture what Suttles calls the "vast majority" of the oil flow until the relief wells that are now being drilled are completed. If it’s not successful, things will get uglier still, since BP has decided that a contingency plan to try to attach a second blowout preventer atop the first may not be feasible. The idea has not been scrapped, but it has been tabled indefinitely. 

For the people of Louisiana, on the front lines of a spill that will certainly swallow their summer and perhaps their way of life, the continued inability to stop the leak is a frightening possibility. "I can’t describe for you how much that news hurt," says Glenn Dufrene, a 47-year-old truck and airboat driver from southeastern Louisiana, speaking of the top-kill failure. "This is the first moment I’ve felt like maybe we could lose some of our precious swamplands."

From the Gulf to the Potomac

The swampland that is Washington is feeling the effects of the BP mess too. On the one hand, President Obama confronts an emergency in which his presidential power is severely limited. The federal government simply doesn’t have the know-how or equipment to cap the gusher; it would be a bit like asking BP to administer the Medicare program. Yet it’s not clear that the public fully appreciates that reality. Disapproval of Obama’s handling of the spill is steadily rising as a chorus of political and opinion leaders — from loyal Democrat James Carville to Washington veteran David Gergen — has smacked him for a supposedly listless and ineffective response. 

It’s mostly an unfair rap. Sure, there are some valid reasons for Obama to pay a political price. It was congressional, not presidential, pressure that forced BP to make its live images of the underwater oil flow available to the public. And it’s apparent that neither Obama nor his senior team made regulatory rigor at the Minerals Management Service (MMS) a top priority; MMS director S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, an Obama appointee, resigned on May 27 after reports of poor management. All this is damning for a President who ran, in part, on the promise of a more competent government.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks into the Rose Garden of the White House to speak after a meeting in Washington

But many of Obama’s critics are zinging him for reasons that have less to do with management than with stagecraft. Pundits have complained that the President hasn’t displayed visceral public anger and that he isn’t spending enough time camped out on the oily Gulf shores, hugging the stricken locals. Yes, displays of executive emotion can sometimes have a meaningful impact. Confident bully-pulpit words can calm financial markets, while angry ones can deter foreign enemies. But getting angry won’t help Obama solve this problem. The President’s job isn’t to offer catharsis. It’s to run the government and get things done. The first measure of success on that score will be simply to stop the bleeding well, which is why Obama may have been wise to resist seizing control of the whole operation from the industry that — for better or worse — is best positioned to do the job.

That said, Obama has shown some skill at calibrating his Administration’s tone, allowing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to play pit bull with his threats to shove BP out of the way and his promise to keep his boot on the oil company’s neck while maintaining presidential dignity when the press questioned the value of such rhetoric. "I would say we don’t need to use language like that," the President said. But he hastened to add, "What we need is actions that make sure that BP is being held accountable. And that’s what I intend to do."

The White House has started to get better at those much discussed optics too. On May 30, for example, climate-and-energy czar Carol Browner openly declared what most other folks had already realized when she conceded, "This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country." That admission signaled a change of course, one that would stress BP’s culpability for the catastrophe and leave the company to twist in ways it hadn’t before. The Administration benched Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who had helped run the spill response and served as Coast Guard spokeswoman, often using that position to laud BP’s efforts thus far. On June 1, Admiral Thad Allen, Landry’s boss and the lead federal official on scene, announced that he would no longer conduct joint briefings with BP. And the same day, the White House dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with federal and state prosecutors in the Gulf, marking the start of a criminal investigation into the spill.

In some quarters, the tough-guy approach had the public relations impact the White House evidently hoped it would. "Hey, BP, Meet FBI," read the June 2 headline of the New YorkDaily News. Obama himself, of course, took a more measured approach. "We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have the experience of a crisis like this again," he said.

Oil in the Wetland

Gulf Coast Struggles With Oil Spill And Its Economic Costs

Whatever investigations are conducted and reforms enacted after the fact, the oil is going to continue to spill, damaging the Gulf and its coastline in ways scientists can’t yet predict. Angelina Freeman knows just how precious the Louisiana wetlands are. A coastal scientist with the EDF now based in Washington, she did her graduate work at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge — she was actually supposed to be back in the state in May for graduation — and she had been involved in a program to help rebuild the region’s wetlands, which have long been under threat from erosion and storms. But since the oil spill, Freeman has been cruising the bayous, taking water samples to send back to her professors. And she’s been finding oil. 

On a recent trip to Pass a Loutre, an eroding patch of Louisiana wetlands just half an hour southeast of Venice, Freeman saw the stain of oil wrapping around the Roseau cane that grows on every patch of land in the marshes. The roots of the grasses looked as if they had been dipped in chocolate, and the shore boom around the islands — part of the nearly 380 miles (600 km) of containment boom that have been laid so far to protect the Gulf shoreline — seemed to be holding the oil in as much as keeping it out. "You can see how far the oil has come," Freeman says, filling a small sample bottle. "These marshes are incredibly important to Louisiana, and if the Roseau cane dies back, you’re losing the base of the wetlands."

By the end of May, those wetlands were under attack, though subtly at first. This wasn’t the black tide seen after the Exxon Valdez spill, when crude coated the rocky beaches of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Rather, oil carried by the shifting ocean currents and winds would suddenly materialize in one section of marshland, only to vanish the next day, leaving responders, scientists and photographers alike chasing around the vast and intricate coastline, following up reports of oil strikes. But once oil penetrates the wetlands — a nursery and feeding ground for birds and marine species alike — it doesn’t take much to have a serious impact. Imagine a sponge soaked in oil. Now imagine trying to get it out. The oil is "like coagulated Hershey’s chocolate syrup," says Kraig Shook, a Florida native visiting Louisiana to peddle an oil-absorbent powder. "They can’t let that stuff come in here." 

Especially not now. Late spring is the reproductive season for scores of species in and around the wetlands, and young animals are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of oil. The marshes are vital to the life cycles of commercially viable species like shrimp. The plentiful birds of the wetlands — from natives like the brown pelicans seen skimming over the cane to migratory species like the sanderlings that use the wetlands as a vital rest and feeding stop — can encounter oil as they dive into the water for food. Even if a light sheen doesn’t kill an adult, slicked birds can take oil back to the nest, destroying eggs or suffocating the young. The International Bird Rescue Research Center, a California-based outfit hired by BP to clean affected fowl, is already treating one to four pelicans a day, and it expects that number to rise considerably as the oil keeps flowing. Oiled birds that are found will most likely represent only a fraction of the number actually claimed by the crude. Most will die at sea or on the inaccessible reaches of the coastline. "Many of our worst fears are coming true," says Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "No bird that depends on oil-impacted wetlands or water is going to be completely safe."

BP, which has bungled so much since the crisis began, seems to understand how precious the marshes are — or at least how important it is to look as if it understands — and along with the Coast Guard, it has ramped up its efforts to protect and clean the coastline in recent days. While Freeman took samples near Pass a Loutre, nearly a dozen boats could be seen at work laying more boom and skimming oil from the water’s surface. By the beginning of June, BP was bringing in "flotels" — essentially freight containers on large rafts converted to hold bunk beds — to serve as residences for the hundreds of cleanup workers it was hiring. But for some locals, that wasn’t nearly enough. Led by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, they are calling for large-scale dredging operations that will create artificial barriers called sand berms, which could physically block the oil in the countless open channels off the Mississippi Delta. "The booms alone can’t do the job in these really wide gaps," says P.J. Hahn, the coastal zone management director of Plaquemines Parish, which includes Venice. Berms, he says, "are the only way to capture the volume of oil that’s coming this way effectively enough."

But many scientists and members of the federal response team are skeptical that the $350 million berm plan will really work. They worry that rushing sand-berm construction without a full environmental assessment could do more harm than good. Decades of oil and gas exploration and digging new canals for navigation had steadily worn down the wetlands well before the Deepwater Horizon accident occurred. Even temporary berms could interfere with the natural tide flows of the delta — potentially wreaking havoc on wildlife that depend on a reliable tidal pattern — and possibly damage the integrity of natural barrier islands. Jindal sent the federal government a permit request to begin building more than 100 miles (160 km) of berms shortly after the spill began, but Washington hesitated to rubber-stamp his plan. "We’re not averse to attempting this as a prototype," said Allen on May 27. But "there are a lot of doubts about whether this is a valid oil-spill-response plan."

It may not be a valid oil-spill-response plan, but the sand berms have the benefit of being big and visible — a comfort for the worried and angry natives of southeastern Louisiana, watching as their land and their livelihood are taken away from them. At the annual Plaquemines Parish seafood festival over Memorial Day weekend — where the turnout was strong despite concerns about the safety of oysters and shrimp — locals wore T-shirts that read, "Dredge, baby, dredge." In the end, Allen seemed to agree with the sentiment — late on June 2 he announced that he had approved five additional sand berms and that BP would foot the bill. Anything, it seems, is better than waiting helplessly for the oil to envelop the wetlands completely. "When it does, you try to imagine how much marshland and animal life it might kill," says Cody Mouton, a boat captain from north of Venice involved in the cleanup. "We’re talking about years, easily, to recover from that."

The Long Term

The truth is, of course, that no one can begin to know what the final toll might be if the spill continues for weeks, in part because no one knows exactly what’s happening to the oil right now. According to the latest government estimate, 12,000 to 19,000 bbl. of oil are leaking from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico each day. Yet the size of the surface oil slick — a radius of 200 miles (320 km), though the exact size and location fluctuates daily — doesn’t match the sheer amount of crude fouling the Gulf. That’s partly because some of it has been burned off or has evaporated away. But it’s also the result of BP’s use of nearly 1 million gal. (3.8 million L) of chemical dispersants, sprayed onto the surface and injected directly into the wellhead to break up the crude and speed the evaporation process. Dispersed oil tends not to float but instead falls below the surface and drifts at mid-depths, meaning that a lot of what’s been spilled so far is invisible. "So much of it is still hidden," says Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University and one of the most outspoken researchers on the spill. "Something is missing." 

Slowly, that something is turning up — and what it’s doing is not pretty. On May 27, scientists from the University of South Florida (USF) returned from a six-day voyage into the Gulf with evidence that huge plumes of oil — broken into bits and beads by the dispersants — were moving thousands of feet beneath the surface in a great toxic cloud. That underwater mix of oil and dispersants could poison fish larvae, with cascading effects up the food chain, and damage the corals found in some parts of the Gulf. "The whole water column from the top to the bottom is getting it on the chin," says the EDF’s Rader.

Gulf Coast Struggles With Oil Spill And Its Economic Costs

That’s not what BP seems to believe. On May 30, while touring a BP staging area for cleanup workers in Louisiana, CEO Tony Hayward told reporters there was "no evidence" that oil was massing underwater. "The oil is on the surface," he said. "There aren’t any plumes." Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is less sure but says she’s still awaiting firm data on underwater oil plumes.

Researchers from USF aren’t the only ones to report finding oil plumes beneath the surface. Scientists from LSU and the University of Southern Mississippi have done so as well. And on the same day as Hayward’s denial, scientists from the University of Georgia (UGA) aboard an ongoing research voyage to the spill found direct evidence of oil in water samples collected nearly 1,000 meters below the surface. "Seeing is believing," blogged UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye. After nearly a month of denials and obfuscation by BP on the technical details of the spill, Joye’s words carry a lot more weight than Hayward’s.

If the well continues to spew for weeks more — and BP continues to apply chemical dispersants at the site of the spill — those underwater plumes will likely continue to grow. If oil hits the shorelines and wetlands and remains underwater as well, no amount of rescue and cleanup efforts will protect sea life. It took years for the fertile salmon fisheries of Prince William Sound to recover from the Exxon Valdez spill, in part because fish that were juveniles at the time of the disaster were severely affected, devastating fish populations for generations. The Gulf spill — far larger and far longer — could be far worse. "We have no idea what an oil spill like this does to the most productive time of the most productive part of the Gulf," says MacDonald. "None."

In some ways that is true of the entire Gulf ecosystem, from shoreline to deep sea. The environment here has been under stress before — the 1979 Ixtoc 1 blowout off the coast of Mexico spilled 3 million to 5 million bbl. of oil into the Gulf — and has bounced back. Like New Orleans itself, the inevitable city in the impossible place, the Gulf coastline has maintained a tenuous balance over the years, with incredible wildlife existing next to intense exploitation of underwater oil. The Gulf is the nation’s gas station and its fishing grounds, and until now, the people of Louisiana have enjoyed both, just as Americans have demanded cheap fossil fuels along with blue skies, clear water and crawfish étouffée. But if we fail to stop the worst oil spill in U.S. History — and fail to learn from the country’s biggest environmental catastrophe — we may find that we can’t have everything we want any longer.

— With reporting by Tim Padgett / Venice, La.; and Michael Crowley / Washington 

(Pictures of how the oil spill is threatening Gulf wildlife.)

(See "BP’s Oil: Fouling the White House Along with the Gulf.")

(See also "Who’s to Blame for the Gulf Oil Spill?")

(Watch TIME’s video "Portraits from the Oil Spill.")

(Watch TIME’s video "Oil Spill Anxiety on the Bayou.")

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