The Far-Reaching Environmental Impacts of Oil Spills

Carl Safina is an ecologist and award-winning author who writes about oceans, animals, and the human relationship with the natural world. A long-time advocate for ocean preservation, Safina was the inaugural holder of the Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook, and President of The Safina Center. He recently shared his experience with nature’s intelligence with Bioneers, and he was a keynote speaker at the National Bioneers Conference 2017.

In A Sea in Flames (Crown Publishers, 2011), Safina shares his account of a months-long, manmade disaster that shook the U.S. As he travels across the Gulf, Safina attempts to deconstruct a series of misjudgments that led to the now-infamous Deepwater Horizon explosion. The excerpt that follows, a selection from “Part Two: A Season of Anguish,” explores the broader impacts that oil spills have on the environment and its inhabitants.

“My name’s Dicky Toups,” says the pilot before he starts the engine of the seaplane I’m climbing into. “But they call me Captain Coon-ass.”

We overfly the emerald maze of the vast Mississippi Delta. Captain Coon-ass points, saying, “There’s a big ole gator.”

To the far points of view, America’s greatest marshes lie dissected, bisected, and trisected, diced by long, straight artificial channels and man-angled meanders, all aids to access and shipping. For the vast multimillion-acre emerald marshes, they are death by a thousand cuts.

The sign had said, “Welcome to Louisiana—America’s Wetland.” Pride and prejudice. People here depend on nature or the control of nature—or both. Keep an eye on nature; it can kill you here. But people can kill the place itself.

Since the 1930s, oil and gas companies have dug about 10,000 miles of canals through the oak and cypress forests, black mangrove swamps, and green marshes. Lined up, they could go straight through Earth with a couple thousand miles to spare. The salt water they brought killed coastal forests and subjected our greatest wetlands to steady erosion. Upstream, dams and levees hold back the sediment that could have helped heal some of that erosion. Starved on one end, eaten at the other. How to kill America’s wetlands. Long after this oil crisis is over, this chronic disease will continue doing far more damage than the oil.

All these Delta-slicing channels cause banks to dissolve, swapping wetlands for open water. Those channels also roll out red carpets for hurricanes. Incredibly, this has all cost Louisiana’s coast about 2,300 square miles of wetlands. Marshland continues to disintegrate at a rate of about 25 square miles a year. The rise in sea level due to global warming is also helping drown watery borderlands. Oil leak or no leak, these things, all ongoing, constitute the most devastating human-made disaster that’s ever hit the Gulf. Bar none.

Only slowly does the muddy Mississippi lose itself to the oceanic blue of the open Gulf, a melting of identities, a meeting of watery minds. And also the drain for sediments, agricultural fertilizers, and deadzone-generating pollutants from the entire Midwest and most of the plains. Even before the oil blowout, this was a troubled place—a troubled place whose troubles have now escalated to a whole new level.

Two boats are tending booms around an island densely dotted with nesting pelicans. As I’ve noticed from the ground—but it’s even more striking from up here, at 3,500 feet—most of the coast is bare of booms and undefended. Where booms have been placed along the outer beach, many have already washed up onshore, already useless.

The sea-surface breeze pattern is interrupted by a marbling of slicks. Often such a pattern is perfectly natural, so I look carefully. It’s brown.

“Oil,” says Captain Coon-ass.

One of those slicks has nuzzled against the shore. There’s a boat there and some people are walking along the beach, inspecting a long boom that the wind has washed ashore.

The nearshore waters and beyond are dotted with drilling rigs for oil and gas, some abandoned. Like bringing coals to Newcastle, many of the rigs stand surrounded by floating oil.

Offshore, longer slicks ribbon their way out across the blue Gulf. As we follow them, the light slicks thicken with dark streaks that look from the air like wind-driven orange fingers, then like chocolate pudding. An ocean streaked with chocolate pudding.

A few miles out, the streaks grow darker still. Yet there remains far more open water than oil slick.

That changes. Blue water turned shiny purple. A bruise from a battering. The sea swollen with oil.

As the water darkens and the slicks widen, Captain Coon-ass points to a small plane below us, saying it’s on a scouting run for the C-130s that will follow to spray dispersants. More chemicals on a sea of chemicals.

Yet plenty of the oil—and I mean plenty—is not dissolved. Blue water turned brown.

“This is some pretty thick stuff right here,” Captain Coon-ass says. The crude is now drifting in broad bands that stretch to the horizon. “We’re lookin’ at twenty miles of oil right here.”

We’re directly over the source of the blowout. Below, two ships are drilling the relief wells that we’ve been told will take months. A dozen ships drift nearby, most with helicopter landing pads on them. What they’re all doing, heaven knows.

A fresh breeze puts whitecaps on the nonoiled patches of the black-and-blue sea. As the C-130 comes out, we turn northeast.

We’re headed toward the Chandeleurs, the line of sandy islands that have been much in the news for their at-risk bird rookeries. Soon we’re over Breton Sound, where a couple of days ago, from a boat, I saw no oil.

But now there is plenty of oil, moving in between the main coast and the islands.

Out to intercept the oil is a fleet of shrimp boats towing booms from the outriggers that would normally tow their nets. The idea appears to be that they will catch the oil at the surface, the way they catch shrimp at the seafloor.

Dozens of boats tow booms through the oil, but as they do, water and oil simply flow over them. Far from corralling it, they’re barely stirring it. As they pass, the oil—seemingly all of it—remains.

Louisiana lives by oil and by seafood. But oil rules. Fishing has nothing like the cash, the lobbyists, the destructive sophistication of the pusher to whose junk we’re all addicted. But Florida lives largely by the whiteness of its sand. It has long eschewed oil. And the difference in what politicians will and won’t say about oil is stark.

Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist returns from a little airtime over the Gulf. His message: “It’s the last thing in the world I would want to see happen in our beautiful state.” He adds, “Until you actually see it, I don’t know how you can comprehend and appreciate the sheer magnitude of that thing. It’s frightening. . . . It’s everywhere. It’s absolutely unbelievable.” Where oil money rules, governors are not at liberty to disclose such impressions. They’re probably not at liberty even to think them.

“The president is frustrated with everything, the president is frustrated with everybody, in the sense that we still have an oil leak,” says a White House spokesman.

But we’ve only just begun.

When Obama announced that he was opening up large new areas for offshore drilling, he said, “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” That’s exactly right. Leaks, spills, and blowouts are never expected. Yet we know they happen. That should make us thorough in preparedness. But the human mind lets down its guard if big danger seems rare and remote.

And so we did. In 2009, the Interior Department exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling operations from a detailed environmental impact analysis after three reviews concluded that a massive oil spill was “unlikely.” Oil rig operators usually must submit a plan for how they’ll cope with a blowout. But in 2008, the Bush administration relaxed the rules. In 2009, the Obama administration said BP didn’t need to file a plan for how it would handle a blowout at the Deepwater Horizon. Now a BP spokesman insists, “We have a plan that has sufficient detail in it to deal with a blowout.”

Obviously, they don’t. Obviously, they aren’t.

“I’m of the opinion that boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster,” says Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “That, in my opinion, is what happened.” Bush and Cheney’s ties to big oil and their destruction of Interior oversight are infamous. But Obama’s Interior secretary’s ties to big energy also make environmentalists uneasy. As a senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar accepted some of BP’s ubiquitous campaign contributions. In 2005, Senator Salazar voted against increasing fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and voted against an amendment to repeal tax breaks for ExxonMobil and other major petroleum companies. In 2006, he voted to expand Gulf of Mexico drilling. And then as Interior secretary, he pushed for more offshore drilling. The Interior secretary now says there have been well more than 30,000 wells drilled into the Gulf of Mexico, “and so this is a very, very rare event.” The oil from those offshore rigs accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s domestic oil production, he notes, adding. “And so for us to turn off those spigots would have a very, very huge impact on America’s economy right now.”

Probability, however, tells us that the spill’s a very, very inevitable event. Especially with 30,000 wells drilled and roughly 4,000 wells currently producing oil in the region. In 2007, the federal Minerals Management Service examined 39 rig blowouts that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006. So, a blowout every four and a half months. I guess most are quickly controlled. Why aren’t we ready for one that isn’t? A car accident is a rare event, but we use our seat belts and we like to know we have air bags.

Rather than plan for the worst, Big Petroleum has indulged in—and been indulged by—a policy of waving away risks. In a 2009 exploration plan, BP strongly discounted the possibility of a catastrophic accident. A Shell analysis for drilling off Alaska asserts that a “large liquid hydrocarbon spill [hydrocarbon meaning oil and gas] . . . is regarded as too remote and speculative to be considered a reasonably foreseeable impacting event.”

Foresee this: if you think it’s difficult to clean up oil in the warm, calm Gulf of Mexico, imagine trying to do it in Arctic waters with icebergs, frozen seas, and twenty hours of darkness.

Speaking of the cold and the dark, “Drill, baby, drill” queen Sarah Palin just has to say something about all this. So she says we shouldn’t trust “foreign” oil companies such as BP. She says, “Don’t naively trust—verify.” Verified: her husband worked for BP for eighteen years. Palin blames “extreme environmentalists” (c’mon, Sarah, is there any other kind?) for causing this blowout because they’ve lobbied hard to prevent new drilling in Alaska. If you follow what she has in place of logic, it could seem she’d rather that this had happened in her home state.

In and out of the comedy of horrors strides BP CEO and court jester Tony Hayward. “I think I have said all along that the company will be judged not on the basis of an accident that, you know, frankly was not our accident.” That’s what he actually says. Highlighting the failed blowout preventer, Hayward says, “That is a piece of equipment owned and operated by Transocean, maintained by Transocean; they are absolutely accountable for its safety and reliability.”

Transocean’s president and CEO says drilling projects “begin and end with the operator: in this case, BP.”

Take that.

He says that Transocean finished drilling three days before the explosion. And he says there’s “no reason to believe” that the blowout preventor’s mechanics failed. That’s what he actually says.

Halliburton’s spokesman says his company followed BP’s drilling plan, federal regulations, and standard industry practices.

In sum, BP has blamed drilling contractor Transocean, which owned the rig. Transocean says BP was responsible for the well’s design and pretty much everything else, and that oil-field services contractor Halliburton was responsible for cementing the well shut. Halliburton says its workers were just following BP’s orders, but that Transocean was responsible for maintaining the rig’s blowout preventer. And the Baby Bear said, “Somebody’s been lying in my bed.”

By the end of the first week of May, a heavy smell of oil coming ashore along parts of Louisiana’s coast begins prompting dozens of complaints about headaches, burning eyes, and nausea.

Meanwhile, I hear on the radio that in an effort to do something, “People from around the world have been giving the hair off their heads, the fur off their pets’ backs, and the tights off their legs to make booms and mats to mop up the oily mess spewing out of the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico.” Whether any of this stuff was ever actually used, I can’t say. I never saw any; that I can say.

By May’s second week, heavy machinery, civilian and military dump trucks, Army jeeps, front-end loaders, backhoes, and National Guard helicopters are pushing up and dropping down sand to keep an impending invasion of oil from reaching the marshes in and around Grand Isle, at the tip of Louisiana. Much of the mobilization falls to the Marine Spill Response Corporation, formed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster and maintained largely by fees from the biggest oil firms. Its vice president of marine spill response says that most of its equipment, including booms and skimmers, was bought in 1990. She says, “The technology hasn’t changed that much since then.”

“This is the largest, most comprehensive spill response mounted in the history of the United States and the oil and gas industry,” crows BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, sounding proud when he ought to be aghast and horrified by the scale of the mess and the upheaval.

Workers farther inland are diverting fresh water from the Mississippi River into the marshlands, hoping the added flow will help push back any oily water that comes knocking. “We’re trying to save thousands of acres of marsh here, where the shrimp grow, where the fin-fish lay their eggs, where the crabs come in and out,” says the director of the Greater Lafourche Port Commission. Enough Mississippi River water to fill the Empire State Building is now rushing into southeastern Louisiana wetlands every half hour. “We have opened every diversion structure we control on the state and parish level to try to limit the oil approaching our coasts,” says the assistant director of the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, “nearly 165,000 gallons every second.”

“It can’t hurt,” says a wetlands ecology professor at Ohio State University and an authority on the Mississippi’s interaction with the Gulf of Mexico. Oh, but it can.


New fear factor: hurricane season. The image: hurricanes that could “churn up towering black waves and blast beaches and crowded cities with oil-soaked gusts.” The news stories carry attributions such as “experts warned.” And precise-sounding imprecision like: “As hurricane season officially starts Tuesday . . .” and “Last month, forecasters who issue a closely watched Colorado State University seasonal forecast said there was a 44 percent chance a hurricane would enter the Gulf of Mexico in the next few months, far greater than the 30 percent historic average.”

To the ambiguity and imprecision, add unnecessary intonations of worrisome complexity: “The high winds may distribute oil over a wide area,” says a National Hurricane Center meteorologist, adding, “It’s a complex problem that really needs to be looked at in great detail to try to understand what the oceanic response is when you have an oil layer at the sea surface.”

To most normal people faced with the real event of an out-of-control mess, especially people who’ve survived hurricanes, that kind of noninformation stokes anxiety, provokes fear—and gives no one a clear clue about what to do. Does one make decisions based on the difference between 30 and 44 percent? News you can use, it isn’t. It’s news that can help ruin your health.

Insult to injury: “Safety first,” says a BP spokesman. “We build in hurricane preparedness, and that requires us to take the necessary precautions.”

By mid-May, something like 10,000 people are Being Paid for cleanup eff orts around the Gulf. BP has little choice. Anything less, there’d be riots. Most are fishermen riding around looking for oil, dragging booms that don’t collect much oil, or putting out booms that can work only on oil that hasn’t been dissolved by dispersants. About a million and a half feet—roughly 300 miles—of boom is already out along the coast. Other people are out picking oil off beaches with shovels.

How much oil are we dealing with? This gets good: Purdue professor Steve Wereley performs computer analyses on the video of the leaking oil to see how far and how fast particles are moving (a technique called particle image velocimetry). His conclusion: the well is leaking between 56,000 and 84,000 barrels daily. His other conclusion: “It’s definitely not 5,000 barrels a day.”

Just a few days ago, during congressional testimony, officials from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton estimated a “worst-case” scenario maximum flow of 60,000 barrels a day. Yet a BP spokesman says the company stands by its estimate of 5,000 barrels per day. There’s “no way to calculate a definite amount,” he says, adding coyly, “We are focused on stopping the leak and not measuring it.”

That’s Bull Poop. As the director of the Texas A&M University’s geochemical and environmental research group points out: “If you don’t know the flow, it is awfully hard to design the thing that is going to work.”

Killing the well is proving difficult. Killing public confidence is easier. The fact that the real flow will turn out to be sixty times what BP was first saying, and twelve times the Coast Guard’s most oft-repeated estimate, does the trick handily.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout by Carl Safina, published by Crown Publishers, 2011.

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