Term Paper: Gulf Coast Oil Spill Gulf of Mexico

Pages: 7 (2557 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Energy  ·  Buy for $19.77

¶ … Gulf oil spill [...] whether the United States should continue to pursue offshore drilling. Offshore drilling made the headlines when the British Petroleum (BP) drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010. Offshore drilling is necessary to augment our dependence on foreign oil, at least until we bring our usage of oil down, but the United States and other nations must develop far greater scrutiny if the practice is to continue. Currently, there are not enough controls and regulations on offshore drilling, and that needs to change drastically.

The definition of offshore drilling is any drilling for oil in the ocean at any depth. Offshore oilrigs used to be limited to near the coastline, but technology now allows them to drill much deeper, as the BP Gulf oil spill shows (Falola & Genova, 2005, p. 9). That rig is over a mile deep, and the only way to work on it is through robots, it is far too deep for divers to reach, which is one of the many problems facing BP as they attempt to bring the oil gushing out of the destroyed rig under control.

Offshore oil drilling has been going on for decades, and it has spread around the world as technologies have improved. Until 2008 the United States banned the practice, and Congress upheld that ban every year ("Green groups bolster lobby," 2008, p. A06). However, when oil and gas prices began to skyrocket, Congress lifted the ban. In October 2009, after BP filed numerous environmental impact and other documents with the government, drilling began. On April 20, 2010, the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst oil spill in American history. While BP reports they have finally tentatively capped the leak after 80+ days of oil leakage, the effects to the Gulf Coast area will be long lasting and devastating for many of the area's residents, including wildlife.

Impacts on biodiversity

Most people understand the grave danger the Gulf oil spill implies to the surrounding coastline. Two authors write, "While one small oil spill may not alter the landscape and wipe out entire species of animals permanently, several oil spills, blowouts, and pollutant emissions into the air within one region or body of water can" (Falola & Genova, 2005, p. 105). Clearly, this is not "one small oil spill." It is the most massive spill the country has ever experienced, far greater than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Another group of authors note, "On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, a major fishing area in Alaska for salmon, shrimp, roe herring, herring roe on kelp, and other seafood" (Owen, Argue, Furchtgott-Roth, Hurdle & Mosteller, 1995, p. 4). Up until the Gulf spill, the Exxon Valdez spill was the largest in American history, and it clearly indicated the impact on biodiversity in Prince William Sound. Twenty-one years after the spill occurred in Alaska, there are lingering effects.

The Alaskan government created the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to study the effects of the oil spill and monitor restoration procedures. They are funded through a civil settlement with Exxon. In 2009, they issued a 20-year report about the lingering effects of the spill on Prince William Sound and the ecosystem there. They found that there is "lingering oil" throughout the region impacted by the oil spill. This oil is underneath the seabed and beaches, and can be found when digging down into the soil in at least 50 areas along the sound. Wildlife was adversely affected in many areas, from fish to birds and sea otters, and in most cases, the populations of these animals dropped dramatically after the spill. The twenty-year study indicates that for most wildlife, their numbers have not returned to pre-spill populations, but they are on the increase. However, many different species continue to show the effects of the spill even today, including killer whales, Pacific herring, and pigeon guillemots are not recovering. Herring fishing was a major source of income for many anglers, and this industry continues to suffer as a result (Michel, and Esler, 2009).

What this indicates for the Gulf coast is quite clear. The billions of gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf incident is much more massive compared to the Exxon Valdez incident, and effects of that spill are still being felt in Alaska today. It ruined the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and women, and changed the ecosystem for decades. The Gulf coast supplies a majority of the fresh seafood, such as oysters and shrimp that the country eats, and there is no estimate of how long these fisheries will be affected. It will certainly result in higher seafood prices around the country, but it will result in even more economic effects on the Gulf coast, that suffered dramatically after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. One has to wonder if the region can ever return to pre-Katrina standards after this additional blow to its ecosystem and economy.

Impacts on water quality

Clearly, such a large spill will have a dramatic impact on the Gulf's water quality. The spill is so massive it can be seen from space; satellites show it lingering off the coast of the Gulf coast communities. The oil will have a devastating effect on water quality and the Gulf ecosystem, but there are other factors that are affecting the water quality, as well. That is the dispersants and other chemicals that BP is using to help break up the oil. The EPA is monitoring these chemicals in the water, and it shows they are affecting water quality, as well. One university Web site maintains that oil is essentially biodegradable. They state, "Crude oil is an organic substance and, as such, is largely biodegradable. Given enough time, ocean turbulence will reduce an oil slick from a large cohesive film to separate droplets" (Editors, 2010). This may be true is small cases, but as the Exxon Valdez incident indicates, large amounts of oil take decades to biodegrade, and that will affect water quality and wildlife for decades to come. In addition, the dispersants are turning the oil into tar balls and sludge that is washing up on beaches, which makes it more difficult to clean up and further degrades the water quality.

Future policy formation on oil drilling

One of the most controversial aspects of the Gulf oil spill has been how lax the regulations were that governed BP and Transocean (the drill owner). At the center of the controversy is the Minerals Management Service (MMS), hastily renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in June 2010. Reports of scandal and abuse of power began circulating around MMS in 2008, when it was uncovered that many staffers had taken bribes from oil company officials, routinely accepted oil company figures for royalty payments, and many other infractions. Experts believe the MMS and oil company executives were far too "cozy" with one another, and that allowed oil companies to have free reign on their proposals and regulations.

A news article notes that MMS was continuing to approve oil company drilling permits in the Gulf, including 13 to BP, as late as June 10 of this year (Sullivan, 2010). Many advocacy groups believe the MMS looks the other way when approving these permits, allowing them to go through without a valid plan in the event of an oil spill. A journalist writers, "Although oil companies must obtain approved exploration plans and a permit before drilling a well, MMS routinely grants these authorizations through a 'categorical exclusion' or waiver of additional environmental review" (Sullivan, 2010). The groups maintain it is this lack of oversight that helped the BP disaster to turn into an environmental nightmare, and that MMS (now BOEMRE), still does not have the tough regulations necessary to really clamp down on the oil companies.

It seems that much more oversight is necessary, and that the MMS did not take the threat of disaster very seriously. Congress is now investigating MMS, and several key figures have resigned or been terminated. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior, who oversees the agency recently appointed a new head, and they are saying that they are going to develop much more stringent controls on the oil industry, and especially offshore drilling.

Another aspect of the public policy that needs to change is how responsible oil companies are to the communities their drilling might harm. At least one group believes that the oil companies should pay a "conservation royalty" that could be used to help communities in time of disaster. Another group of writers note, "NRPA has consistently taken the position that if there is to be permanent extraction of our nation's natural resources from offshore drilling in federal waters, that there should be a permanent conservation royalty assessed to the sale of leases and production" (Phillips, Bucher & Young,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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