The Gulf Coast Oil Spill: Two Months Later

The Gulf Coast Oil Spill: Two Months Later

Over 700 birds have been found oiled but alive; fewer than 100 have been successfully cleaned and released.

Yesterday was the two-month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20th, an explosion on a BP-operated oil drilling rig 40-miles off the Gulf Coast left 11 workers dead and an unknown quantity of crude oil gushing into surrounding waters. In the last few weeks, estimates of the severity of the spill have continued to rise: Initially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that there were approximately 5,000 barrels of oil gushing from the underwater well each day; now the estimate is 40,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. After several unsuccessful attempts to staunch the flow of oil, BP installed a new containment device on June 3rd that is collecting approximately 15,000 barrels per day; a second device was installed on June 16th. (Unfortunately, some reports show that this tactic may have actually increased the quantity of oil gushing from the underwater well.)

It’s difficult to measure the spill in terms of numbers when they seem to be changing almost daily. However, I made a few calculations based on recent figures:

(Assuming a daily flow of 50,000 barrels, which is 10,000 below the highest estimate)

From April 20 to June 2nd, before the containment cap:
43 days * 50,000 barrels = 2,150,000 barrels

From June 3rd to 21st, assuming that the cap collects 15,000 barrels per day:
18 days * 35,000 barrels = 630,000 barrels

That’s a total of 2,780,000 barrels, or 116,760,000 gallons.

Assuming a price of $77 per barrel, $214,060,000 worth of crude oil has spilled into the Gulf so far. BP reports that they have already spent $2 billion dollars trying to repair the damages, including $105 million that has been paid out to 32,000 claimants, which is not included in the $20 billion escrow fund set up last week to compensate victims of the spill. Almost three million barrels of crude oil have spilled into the Gulf, but the value of this oil is nothing compared to the costs of cleaning up this disaster.

And what about the costs that are much harder–if not impossible–to measure? A new website is reporting the consolidated counts of wildlife deaths since the spill began. As of June 20th, the number stands at 934 dead birds, 380 dead turtles, and 46 dead mammals. However, the true numbers are probably much higher, since animals that die in deep water are unlikely to be found and recorded. On June 15th, an NOAA ship found a 25-foot juvenile sperm whale corpse floating about 77 miles from the origin of the spill, which may be the “largest victim yet”. Will BP be setting aside a separate escrow fund to compensate the pelicans, dolphins, sea turtles, and fish who have lost their habitats and found their fur, feathers, and scales covered in a thick coat of black oil? Somehow I doubt it. The New Yorker cover from June 7th depicts a panel of oil-covered animals holding court in front of suited executives; a seabird crosses his arms across his feathered breast and a dolphin scowls through the brown splatter covering her beak, while a balding white man raises his right hand. I don’t need to hear the animals speak; I think I know what they would say.

This isn’t the only striking imagery that has emerged from the oil spill, especially in reaction to the government’s response and BP CEO Tony Hayward’s questionable dedication to the cleanup efforts. The Huffington Post published a memorable collection of Anti-BP art, which includes photoshopped images of Spongebob Squarepants, Aquaman, and the Little Mermaid covered in oil. These graphics make it blatantly clear that we blame BP for this disaster–and so we should, especially as more evidence of dubious practices within the company and aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig emerge. However, we must also blame ourselves. We, the American people, have resisted a reduction of our dependence on oil; we still cling to our enormous SUVs and over-sized homes. We are angry now, but are we angry enough to make long-term changes in our own lives?

In Nigeria, people are shocked by the anger and media attention that has been directed to the Gulf Coast oil spill. For the last fifty years, crude oil has been spilling into the Niger Delta, as much as the Exxon Valdez spilled in total, every year. The Niger Delta, which supplies 40% of the crude oil imported by the United States, was once a lush tropical land; now it has become the oil pollution capital of the world. Writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people of Nigeria, says, “If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention. This kind of spill happens all the time in the Delta…When I see the efforts being made in the US I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards.” If anything good is to come of the tragedy in the Gulf Coast, perhaps it will be an enhanced global awareness of the impacts of the oil industry around the world. This disaster may put a face on the great hardships caused by our relentless extraction of petroleum from the earth, whether the face belongs to an unemployed fisherman in Louisiana, a farmer in Nigeria, or a Loggerhead sea turtle. Whoever it belongs to, it is a face covered in thick, black oil.

This Saturday, a national anti-offshore drilling campaign called Hands Across the Sand will be hosting demonstrations around the country, including a rally at Coney Island Beach. Meet near the NY Aquarium at 11am; at noon, join hands on the beach to say NO to offshore drilling, and YES to clean energy policies. For more information, please see the event’s Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center