News / USA

Oil and Water Don't Mix

A massive oil spill off the coastline of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico has cost BP hundreds of millions of dollars - and that's before the leak has even been plugged. But the biggest costs may be yet to come, hitting the environment and the people who live and work along the Gulf Coast.

Aerial images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill taken from a US Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft.
Aerial images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill taken from a US Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft.
Rebecca Ward

Oil and water don't mix, as the old saying goes. That's as true in the ocean as anywhere.  However, oil in the ocean  can also be a lethal combination for wildlife. Spills from tankers, pipelines or an offshore platform - as is the case in leaking Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico - can affect thousands of square kilometers of sea and land.  And the effects can last many years after it seems the oil is cleaned up.   

"Right now we have immediate short-term impacts and possible implications for wildlife and habitats being directly coated by oil," notes Doug Inkley, senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. "But the longer term impacts are the toxic effects and the residual effects that could last for years.  In the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in Alaska, it's now 20 years later and we still have some species that are not recovering or have not completely recovered to pre-wreck conditions."

Until the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled more than 260,000 barrels of oil in 1989, the United States'  worst oil disaster had been off California's Santa Barbara coast in 1969. It coated the water and western California shore with nearly 4,800 barrels of oil that eventually spread across 1300 kilometers, killing thousands of marine birds, mammals and fish.

"We have to be concerned about any of the birds that land on the water," says Inkley.  "We have to be concerned about the entire marine eco-system because this oil is toxic to the phytoplankton, the zooplankton, the very base of the food chain that all the animals further up the food chain are dependent upon."

The 1969 California oil spill is credited with having sparked the modern environmental movement.  But injury to marine wildlife is just one part of the story.  Oil spills can have devastating effects on a region's economy.  Blighted beaches do not attract tourists, and the fishing industry in the vicinity of an oil spill can be nearly wiped out.  In Louisiana, areas where fishermen would normally trawl for shrimp and trap crabs have been shut down as the oil slick threatens to contaminate fishing waters.

"It is an ecological disaster," says NWF's Inkley.  "It's going to change the livelihood of people probably forever. And what we need to do is recognize that we're all in this together.  And to the extent that we're using oil and gas ourselves, we're probably contributing to the problem."

Environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation propose the United States needs to convert to renewable fuels, because accidents and oil spills will continue to happen. And these days, even industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute agree on the need for renewables - in theory.  However in practice, says API senior economist Sara Banaszek, oil remains the single largest source of energy worldwide.

"Right now, today in this country, less one percent of our energy is coming from wind and solar," says Banaszek.  "It's growing very rapidly but it's growing from a very small base.  60 percent of our energy is coming from oil and natural gas.  That's down from 25 years ago, maybe 70-something percent was coming from oil and natural gas. And it's forecast to continue declining down to 50-something in the future."

And despite the potential magnitude of environmental havoc in the Gulf, says Banaszek, accidents like that at the Deepwater Horizon platform are extremely rare. "We haven't had an even of this sort of size or magnitude in about 40 years and we've been operating in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1940s."

Elsewhere in the world, however, there have been more accidents.  Last year in Australia, an oil well owned by a Thai company leaked for ten weeks into the Timor Sea before being plugged. And, says Doug Inkley, these spills do not clean up easily.

"The idea that we can effectively clean up an oil spill is really a myth, it's a fabrication.  When you look at the size of this oil spill, when you look at the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, only 14 percent of the oil was ever recovered."  

It remains to be seen exactly how this latest oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will affect U.S. energy policy, given that the oil and gas industry also provides hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid