NOTE: This is a guest post from Aaron Viles, the Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
Over a year and a half ago, BP’s Macondo well erupted, spewing over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. We continue to experience impacts from the disaster today. The oil is still washing on shore and the environmental impacts are still being revealed – the BP oil disaster is not over.
We’ve seen record numbers of dolphin mortality — nearly 500 since the disaster, low numbers of whale sharks returning to the Gulf, and deformities on the gills of the Gulf killifish — an abundant bait fish and an important food source for many marine species.
Even worse, recent headlines and GRN’s monitoring efforts have underscored that the oil industry continues to abuse the Gulf, failing to learn the lessons of the BP drilling disaster. Our nation’s energy sacrifice zone is paying the true price of our collective oil addiction. Adding to the outrage, not a single bill has been signed into law to protect and restore the Gulf or the threatened coastal communities which rely on it.
First, the back story: Recent research shows clearly that the act of removing oil and gas deposits from beneath Louisiana’s marsh over the past 50 years fueled catastrophic subsidence, playing a huge role in turning nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal wetlands into open water since 1932. Add in the impacts of 10,000 miles of canals that have been dredged by and for the oil industry, and the role of levees and jetties which keep the Mississippi River from ever rebuilding those wetlands with dirt and fresh water, and Louisiana is faced with an unparalleled coastal wetlands crisis.
effective storm protection, knocking down as much as a foot of storm surge for every mile of intact ecosystem the surge must travel across. Basically, if Hurricane Katrina had encountered a robust coastal system, the events of 6 years ago would have been far less tragic and damaging.The loss of these wetlands has left coastal communities (including New Orleans) far more vulnerable to the impacts of storms and hurricanes. The natural, coastal lines of defense such as barrier islands, marsh, and cypress swamps amount to incredibly
Currently, the vast majority of oil production has moved offshore, leaving behind weakened, shredded wetlands. Of course the pipelines still travel through the marsh, linking offshore production with onshore refineries and tank farms, so as the wetlands further erode, more and more of the oil industry’s infrastructure is exposed to open-water conditions. This means more boat and barge accidents, more busted pipelines, and more oil spills. Oddly, it hasn’t meant more oil spill fines, as Bloomberg News has reported that the state of Louisiana levies fines in fewer than one in 100 spills, and the Coast Guard rarely has the resources to truly investigate and hold accountable those contributing to off-shore spills.
So the spills continue. Here are some of our recent shots of a leak at a Taylor Energy well, which has been leaking since 2004′s Hurricane Ivan, as well as a couple other spills. All these were found on our most recent monitoring flight with our partner Southwings. Also just in the news was a 13,000 gallon release of oil and drilling fluid by a Transocean operated rig working for Shell. The Coast Guard knows about all these releases. Will they hold anyone accountable? Probably not.
And into this mess, wades Mississippi’s outgoing Governor, Haley Barbour, who thinks drilling off the Mississippi Coast would be a great idea. Of course, he also said 2010′s BP drilling disaster was more a media and image problem for his state as opposed to an actual environmental problem.
Here we go again.
Fortunately, we still have an opportunity to learn the lessons of the BP drilling disaster, and protect and restore the Gulf.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to fund the recovery of the Gulf coast using BPís Clean Water Act fines – the RESTORE Act aims to direct 80% of these fines towards ecosystem restoration and community recovery. There are currently two versions of the bill, in the House and Senate, which aim to bring BPís money down to the Gulf.
If Congress does not act now, these fines (between 5-20 billion dollars) will end up in the black hole of the Federal Treasury. Itís only fair that BP’s money be used to restore the ecosystem they helped jeopardize.
A second necessary policy shift would stand up a Gulf regional citizens’ advisory council, to meaningfully engage and watchdog the oil indstry’s activities in the Gulf. The citizen advisory council model has been proven over the past 20 years in Alaska, where they were created in the wake of the Exxon Valdez. It’s far past time that the oil industry was subjected to the same degree of scrutiny and community accountability in the Gulf.
Both of these proposals gained the support of the President’s Oil Spill Commission, which released their recommendations almost one year ago. It’s incredibly frustrating that so little action has been taken to implement these suggestions in that time.
It is clear that if we’re going to protect and restore the Gulf, it will take a loud voice from the nation, not only from the Gulf. Please visit our action alert and add your voice to ours:
Aaron Viles is the Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a 17 year-old environmental advocacy group exclusively focused on the health of the Gulf of Mexico. ‘Like’ them on Facebook here for updates on the continued fallout of the BP drilling disaster. Follow Aaron on twitter here @GulfAaron
Photo: Taylor Energy well - leaking since 2004's Hurricane Ivan. Dec. 8, 2011. GRN Photo.