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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid