Offshore oil spills contaminate fresh water, too

November 12, 2014

The NWNL website has added a video trailer for “The Great Invisible”, a new documentary on Louisiana Coast damages caused by oil and gas extraction. NWNL research and our Lower Mississippi River Delta expedition in Sept 2014 have focused on this subject, and we highly recommend this documentary of personal stories that highlight the nexus of Mississippi Delta ecosystem functions and the oil and gas industry. Below is expanded commentary on this issue.

Oil rig in Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana

Oil rig in Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana

“The Great Invisible”, a new documentary by filmmaker Margaret Brown reviewed recently by the New York Times, explores the aftermath of the world’s largest oil spill. The blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, operated by BP, in April of 2010 resulted in the discharge of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days, contaminating hundreds of miles of beaches. Extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats and to the fishing and tourism industries resulted not only from the oil but also from adverse effects of the cleanup activities. Chemicals from the oil and the dispersant used during cleanup also led to a public health crisis along the Gulf Coast.

The use of offshore oil wells goes back to the 1890s. The first submerged oil wells in salt water were drilled in the Santa Barbara Channel around 1896. After the first federal offshore lease sale was held in 1954 for oil production rights off the coast of Louisiana, the Gulf Coast became the heart of the U.S. petrochemical industry. However, the safety of offshore drilling came into question with the Santa Barbara Oil Spill in 1969. It was the largest oil spill in United States waters at the time, with consequences similar to those in the Gulf four decades later. It was one of the most dramatic and visible events that led to the the regulatory and legislative framework of the environmental movement.

Spills in the ocean wash ashore and affect the quality of nutrient rich river estuaries where salt water meets fresh water and support spawning grounds and nurseries of our greatest fisheries. In the BP spill, the combination of oil, water, dispersant, weathering and natural organic matter has created an emulsion thicker than peanut butter.

An oil industry executive claims “Regulations block innovation, so government needs to get out of the way of business,” yet to date BP has cleaned up less than 1/3 of the spilled oil, according to the film.

Meanwhile, BP has been in Federal District Court in New Orleans along with Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and Halliburton, the contractor responsible for an unstable cement slurry used in the well. In September BP was found to be the primary culprit and that it had acted with “conscious disregard of known risks.” A trial scheduled to begin in January will determine penalties under the Clean Water Act.

Forty-five years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and four years after the Deepwater Horizon, Congress has yet to pass any safety legislation for the petroleum industry.

What will it take to prevent such an accident happening again? More regulation? A change in oil industry culture? Whatever it takes, we hope that “The Great Invisible” will help that conversation along.

— RW

Platform C oil rig in the Barbara Channel

Platform C oil rig in the Barbara Channel

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