The true fallout from the BP oil spill may be unimaginable

The U.S. government and BP are rushing to put the Gulf spill behind them—but it’s not over yet

by Chris Sorensen

Chris Bickford and Stephen Crowley The New York Times/ Gerald Herbert/AP

It only took a few weeks for Jim Cowan to discover there was more to BP’s massive Macondo oil spill than meets the eye. He was part of a team of scientists that took to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico shortly after an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and caused the US$350-million drill rig to sink. As oil gushed uncontrollably from the damaged well 5,000 feet below, Cowan and his colleagues plied the waves until they came across a telltale sheen. They dropped their remotely operated submersible beneath the slick and confirmed their fears—a giant moving cloud of oil droplets, later dubbed a “plume.”

The discovery challenged the all-oil-rises-to-the-surface belief that had been guiding the cleanup and containment efforts. And it was met with resistance from both BP and the U.S. government, which had given the oil giant permission to spray an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants on the surface and, unusually, at the source of the leak. “We took a lot of heat,” says Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University. “There was a great deal of denial.”

More than three months later, the well appears to be on its way to being permanently capped, but Cowan and other scientists feel as though they’re still facing a sense of denial. This time, however, it’s about the extent of the ecological damage, with the underwater plumes once again figuring prominently into the equation. Indeed, ever since BP managed to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf on July 15, there has been a rush to turn the page on the worst oil spill disaster in American history. In a bid to revive ailing fisheries and the region’s tourism industry, U.S. President Barack Obama has been photographed frolicking in the surf with daughter Sasha and chowing down on Gulf Coast seafood whenever possible. Meanwhile, a recent government report suggested three-quarters of the 4.9 million barrels of spilled crude is no longer much to worry about, with much of it having been “dissolved” or dispersed. Even BP seems to have found its footing again. It has dumped its gaffe-prone CEO, struck a deal with Washington on a US$20-billion compensation fund, and is likely to be a key beneficiary from the current push to lift the moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf, where it is a key player.

But the nagging question remains: what happened to all of that undersea oil? While efforts to disperse the gushing crude may have helped minimize damage to the region’s sandy white beaches, there are mounting fears it did so at the expense of turning the Gulf into a toxic soup of hydrocarbons and other chemicals—the fallout of which could ultimately prove to be far worse and longer-lasting to the region’s marine life and the local economies that depend on it. “This was the largest man-induced oil spill to have occurred anywhere, and at one point the surface slick was as big as the state of Kansas,” says Cowan. “And we think only a fraction of the oil made it to the surface.”

On Aug. 2, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Department of the Interior released a study that attempted to account for the nearly five million barrels of oil that had been released into the Gulf over a period of more than 100 days. It suggested that 25 per cent of the crude had been mopped up by ships or lit on fire. Another 25 per cent is believed to have simply evaporated or dissolved, while 24 per cent was dispersed into tiny droplets—some of it naturally and some because of the estimated 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants used. The remaining 26 per cent is believed to be on or just below the surface or “has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments.”

Of course, 26 per cent of 4.9 million barrels is still about 1.3 million barrels, or about five times what the Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, creating what had previously been the worst-ever oil spill in the U.S. And Cowan and other scientists aren’t convinced that underwater clouds of oil are any less dangerous to marine life than bird-killing surface slicks. The same goes for “dissolved” oil. While the government report compares it to sugar dissolved in a cup of water, Cowan notes wryly that sugared water “still tastes sweet when you drink it.” Even the government figures remain contentious—a new report from the University of Georgia says 79 per cent of the spilled oil is still in the Gulf.

While commercial fisheries in the Gulf are slowly being reopened following testing by health officials (the industry is worth US$2.4 billion in Louisiana alone), Cowan says he is concerned that dispersed or dissolved oil may actually be easier for fish to ingest through their gills, adding that many non-scientists overlook the fact that animals tend to be resilient in the face of a short-term threat—oil-stained birds, for instance, can be cleaned off and released—but are often extremely vulnerable to long-term exposures to toxins. He just can’t shake a feeling that BP’s decision to rely heavily on dispersants, themselves toxic, could one day prove to have been a deal with the devil. “The problem with the dispersants,” Cowan says, “is that they kept so much of the oil away from the surface, but subsurface oil is impossible to clean up.”

Anita Burke has first-hand experience with oil spills and the chemicals used to treat them. She once worked as a consultant on the front lines of the Exxon Valdez spill. “Corexit”—the brand of dispersant used in the Gulf—“is a pretty nasty solvent,” says Burke, who formerly also held the title of senior adviser in charge of sustainable development for Shell. “I was pretty shocked when I saw they were injecting that directly into the wellhead. The stuff just doesn’t go away. I think it’s early days and I’m nervous about the outcome.”

BP, however, is sticking by its decision. “The purpose of dispersants is to break the oil down into ‘bite-size’ particles for the naturally occurring microbes to eat,” says Robert Wine, a spokesperson for the London-based oil giant, noting that the use of dispersants was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He added that the Gulf of Mexico “is rich in oil-eating microbes because of the high levels of natural seepage anyway, and the warm waters.”

If BP is wrong, however, it’s not clear whether it can be made to pay for the longer-term damages. The company and the U.S. government have agreed to set up a $20-billion cleanup and compensation fund over the next 3½ years that will pay out all “legitimate claims” by residents and businesses that suffered because of the spill, as well as the costs incurred as a result of local, state and federal cleanup efforts. The fund, to which BP has already made an initial contribution of US$3 billion, will also accept claims for “natural resource damages,” although neither BP nor the U.S. government has offered specifics.

Tallying the longer-term damage from the spill isn’t easy. In addition to the direct costs of the cleanup, one estimate, by Moody’s Analytics, suggested it could cost the Gulf Coast region 17,000 jobs and about US$1.2 billion in lost economic growth by the end of the year. Another study, by Oxford Economics, pegged the cost to the tourism industry alone at US$7.6 billion to US$22.7 billion. BP, which has so far spent US$6.1 billion on stopping the leak and cleanup efforts, has taken a US$32-billion writedown related to the spill, although some analysts have speculated the total figure could climb as high as US$50 billion. That includes lawsuits and civil fines, which could be as high as US$21 billion if BP is found guilty of “gross negligence” in the disaster. The state of Alabama has already filed lawsuits against BP and the companies it worked with on the Deepwater Horizon, although the suits have yet to put a price tag on the damages being sought.

Despite the growing financial impact, it’s increasingly looking as though the company may actually be able to skate through the disaster with a few deep, but not fatal, wounds. For one thing, many of BP’s cleanup costs can be deducted from its taxes, creating an estimated US$10 billion in future savings—a figure that was confirmed by Wine, BP’s spokesperson. BP also has an estimated US$250 billion worth of assets that it can sell if it needs to raise money (it has already pledged to sell assets worth about US$30 billion). And, most importantly, it now has a powerful partner in the U.S. government, which isn’t eager to see BP cratered since the cost of cleaning up the mess would then land in its lap. Investors, too, are gradually becoming more optimistic. Shares have climbed more than 35 per cent since bottoming out in late June.

BP’s road to recovery is also being fuelled by a widespread desire to forget that the ugly incident ever happened. Amid pressure from local politicians, who depend on the offshore industry to create local jobs, U.S. government officials suggested last week that the Obama administration’s temporary ban on offshore drilling could be lifted well before the Nov. 30 deadline. “The moratorium on new drilling is in effect a moratorium on new supply in the U.S,” says Jeff Rubin, an author and former bank economist. “Deepwater has been the single largest source of new supply over the last 10 years, and BP was at the forefront of that.”

It all raises the question of whether steps will be taken to reduce the possibility of a similar accident in the future. While officials say they are still examining the need for changes to safety procedures and regulation of the industry before eliminating the ban, experts say rising oil prices and rising global demand mean the job of finding oil and extracting it will only become more difficult and dangerous. “The last half of the [world’s] crude is stuck in weird places and requires intense amounts of money and energy to get at it,” says Burke. In the case of deepwater rigs, she says, “you’re dealing with a complete unknown area and unknown pressures. We don’t know what’s going to happen when we start poking holes in these reservoirs.”

What we do know, thanks to BP’s disaster in the Gulf, is that the cost of drilling pales in comparison to the price of cleaning up after something goes wrong—if indeed it can ever be cleaned up at all. Burke recalls a moment during the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez. She was standing in a “dinky little bay, about the size of a two-car driveway, and the spill is about the size of New York City,” trying to collect dime-sized globules of oil sprayed on the rocks by waves. The futility of the effort hit her and she began to cry. “You go up to Prince William Sound right now and dig down three feet and there’s still oil there,” she says. “We’re 25 years later, and we didn’t put all those chemicals in the water like they did in the Gulf, and they still don’t have a herring run.”




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The true fallout from the BP oil spill may be unimaginable

  1. Sir, Madam
    You are writing newspaper volume but there is no any relation or any nearby solution to the subject, most of you in America has nothing except to apply responsibility to your elected president while your president has nothing to the subject ,there are ministries, secretaries direct technical responsible pupil and direct related office personals, while no one responded to my comments which is the direct solutions, even BP was in hurry to have a white paper of my comment, but seems they where shame to apply comment from an eastern technical person.
    Jesus you will test fish in gulf with many disuse and even cancer years later and BP so many lost in there assets. Author example you see the car manufacturing move back to there site thousands to repair a miner fault but they don't send a technician there to tech technical personal to do the job. I had spent days to do modification in Boeing aircraft but there technical personal wants idea free, and still those failures are in that aircraft and time to tome ignites at air or down in ground and they do not won't to tell the actual problem.

  2. I remember Chicken Little and the Sky falling. It hit me on the
    head and I have not been the same since. I think Mr Chris Sorensen
    was hit on the head as well.

  3. The fears are reasonable but these scientists are all speculating but dont actually know what is happening.

    The herring failed 4 years after the Valdez spill and I dont see a study that says the spill was directly responsible.

    Absolutely true that oil spills cannot be prevented from coming ashore and the only answer is prevention.

    The oil is more toxic than the dispersant – it has to be or the dispersant will not pass the approval test

    The use of dispersant underwater was a risk that they took. The alternative was massibe coastal pollution. We will have to see who was right. mIt will take some time.

    • sorry… not true. re the herring… the herring did not show up that spring after the spill and have never come back.. full stop..

      adn there was no research on the toxicity of the dispersant never has been it is the whole reason we did not use it on the EXXON Valdez… it was just too risky..

      • We had a massive oil spill on Cape Breton Island in the seventies when a tanker ran aground. Some "expert" said it would take 175 years to disappear.(how he came up with that number is any one's guess). Three or four years later you wouldn't have know it happened. The coves and beaches are all pristine(I was kayaking there this weekend.) You would be hard pressed to find anyone who even remembers it now. Twas in cold water and I doubt much in the way of those handy bacteria that inhabit the gulf. Make BP pay every dime for damages caused and then take a pill. This too will soon be old news and the media will have to find something else to over hype. Perhaps they can revisit the swine flu and scare the ignorant peasants with that boogie man. Cheers.

        • yes it is hard to find meaning the over-saturated media coverage.

          however this article needs to be written, hiding in the sand of ignorance while claiming some kind of intellectual superiority is hardly a virtue. Jesse Ventura is not the last word on intelligent news . So go back to sleep in your sleepy little cove and hey… hows the cod doing dear.

  4. Petroleum-eating bacteria – which had dined for eons on oil seeping naturally through the seafloor – proliferated in the cloud of oil that drifted underwater for months after the April 20 accident. They not only outcompeted fellow microbes, they each ramped up their own internal metabolic machinery to digest the oil as efficiently as possible.

    The result was a nature-made cleanup crew capable of reducing that reduced the amount of oil amounts in the undersea "plume" by half about every three days, according to research published online Tuesday by the journal Science.

    See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/arti

  5. Yay…

    Two pages of "we don't know what's going to happen" combined with "but I'm sure it will be terrible!"

    Great writing.

  6. 25% mopped up or lit on fire, 25% evaporated or dissolved, 24% dispersed into droplets and the other 26% washed ashore or is buried in the sand. Good job BP well done. Lets get those fishermen back out there fishing again. Let all the tourists know business is back to normal. Make sure to send the president and his family down to prove just how clean everything is.
    How can you argue with such sound scientific conclusions. Its backed by the full power and intelligence of the United States Government!
    The same US government who told its population that inflation is forever, the war on drugs is a just war, invading iraq is necessary to thwart a build up of nuclear and biological arms. The same government who tells its population that the fumes and byproducts of natural gas extraction is harmless. The same government who invades a country straight out of the dark ages to capture one man and spends 220 million a day to do it?
    What would ever make a sane person actually believe the tripe being spewed from the government about the largest oil spill in US history. Desperate people who will listen to anything remotely positive whether it be true or not.

    Make no mistake when grasping the size of this spill. The environmental fallout will be felt for decades. The human toll will be felt years down the road. Just imagine all the weird and abnormal cancers and birth defects that will arise from eating stuff out of that chemical/oily stew in the gulf.

    The US government sure doesn't want its citizens to imagine anything. Pull up the door mat and sweep the problems underneath. Besides most of those politicians will be out of office by the time the piper comes calling back anyway. See no evil hear no evil. Its disgusting!

    • And U.S. companies are boycotting suppliers who use oil sands petroleum, instead depending on this source, or the always-reliable and empathetic Middle East.
      You, sir, have nailed the story, better than the author of the article!

  7. I live here. The coast is my home.
    *Contrary to reports we got lucky and very little oil washed ashore Walton County Beaches.
    *BP cherry picking which claims to pay.
    *The seaweed is odd – I can't put it into words but it isn't the normal seaweed we get this time of year.
    *We are scared, worried, and fear is very dangerous when so many of us were struggling BEFORE this crisis.
    *It is scary quiet – no one is here. Very few on the beaches.
    *A mass exodus is happening – from people that are giving up on so called Real Estate "investments" to old-timers that I never thought would leave.
    *Sure the all clear has been giving to the fishing community – but no one is buying.
    *When people ask me, "Is it safe?" with hope in their eyes, and a little one at their feet I can't lie – "I don't know. I haven't gone in – and won't for some time."
    *At the county line a bunch of oil was discovered underneath layers of sand – even though this sand had little visible oil contamination. Will this leech into surrounding areas? Fresh water?

  8. I am happy that our bird and fish populations seem to have returned. The sunsets are still amazing (last night the sun was bright red), there is much nature to be enjoyed.

    If you ever loved it here (the emerald coast), visit. Even if you are worried about the gulf. If you ever loved that little ice cream shop, or the restaurant with the funky decor, visit so they can stay afloat. Spend a little money, make some memories, and know that you are helping and entire community heal and remain strong.

  9. First: the nitwits from BP should be drawn and quartered. Second: the hysterical press and eco-hucksters should endure the same fate. I grew up on Cape Breton Island in the 70's and was there for one of the world's first highly publicized oil spills. Some "expert" earnestly told us it would be 175 years before the damage was repaired(haven't a clue how he came up with the number). Two or three years later you would be very hard pressed to find any evidence it ever happened. That was in cold water and without naturally occurring bacteria that eat up oil that exist in the Gulf. In a year or two this will be ancient history and life there will go on as normal. Cheers.

  10. If you look back at the other large spill in the Gulf of Mexico back in 1979, the Gulf ecosystem recovered far more quickly than was anticipated. The Ixtoc 1 well being drilled by Pemex spilled over 3.3 million barrels of oil over a 9 month period into the Gulf. As in the case of the Macondo well, hundreds of flights sprayed the dispersant Corexit 9500 over the slick in an attempt to break it up.

    Environmental damage was extensive, especially to the beaches of Mexico; bird, fish, squid and octopus populations were particularly heavily hit. In some areas, it was reported that catches in the fishery dropped by 50 to 70% from the previous year. Within a few years, scientists noted that fish catches had returned to normal levels and that there was very little evidence of damage. Fortunately, fewer wetlands were inundated by oil in the portions of the shoreline affected by the Ixtoc spill unlike the fragile Mississippi delta marshes that are being affected by the BP Macondo spill. Scientists that returned to the beaches of Mexico years after the spill and noted that most of the oil had weathered to tar and it no longer appeared to have a marked effect on the beach ecosystem. Fortunately, it appears that the warm temperatures in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico aided in the rapid breakdown and evaporation of the Ixtoc crude.

    To read more about the Ixtoc blowout, see:

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/2010/07/ixto

  11. In discussing the BP oil spill on our blog, someone commented that responsibility requires that a corporation tell the truth. Out of curiosity, should a corporation tell the truth when it would help plaintiffs in lawsuits against the corporation recover more damages which would adversely affect the corporations bottom line, or is this an instance where lying is justified?

  12. speculation is the lifeblood of the environmental movement. did Macleans Magazine actually pay for this silly what-if-the-sky-falls nonsense?

    • speculation that is used as propaganda to smooth the way for more state regulation of freedoms.

  13. Doesnt the earth emit oil, magma, and other substances into the ocean all the time? I would imagine that the long term damage from teh chemical dispersants will be far worse than that from the oil itself.

  14. Ever walk down the beach and see a big chunk of asphalt? That was someone's very thick oil spill, 24 months earlier. Put another way, what happened to the hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil and gasoline that came from all those tankers sunk by German U Boats off our Gulf and Atlantic coasts in 1941-1942. Answer: it was all gone within 24 months. Just like with the Ixtoc explosion and oil spill.

    Wake up America! You are witnessing another Obama-Clinton pay to play scam! What did (the Clinton shadow government member) Rham Emmanuel say….”never waste a good crisis”

    Forget the booms, the dispersants, the armada of shrimp boats, the skimmers and the daily press briefings. Let Mother Nature take her course and it will all be over in two years.

    History repeats itself!

    To learn more search: George Meredith MD Comments

    George Meredith MD

    Virginia Beach

  15. Really harm a lot of oil ah

  16. meeooooowww

  17. meeoowww

    • Meeeoow meowmeoww meeeooowww

  18. Welcome to team fortress 2, after 9 years in development hopefully it would have been worth the weight.

  19. FUS RO DAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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