Remember the gulf oil spill?


In 2010, I completed a second degree in Environmental Science and was hopelessly looking for a full time job. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the planet, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened. A hydrogeology professor put me in touch with a colleague that worked for a company hired by BP to perform a Natural Resources Damage Assessment. Next to no interview was necessary – they were basically looking for warm bodies.

I worked two and a half weeks on, and two and a half weeks off for 3 months. Each cycle began with my arrival to New Orleans. I would then rent a car and drive an hour west to the de facto command center. There were hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people everywhere representing dozens of different entities, a hive of activity buzzing 24/7. Once I received my gear and list of tasks, I headed out to the hotel, guest house, or bed and breakfast owned by an old racist [1] that was booked by the company’s logistics team. The following days would send me all over south central Louisiana, and Lake Pontchartrain looking for oil and taking various samples (water, oil, vegetation, beach sediment, etc.) at predetermined locations.

The days were long, usually 14-18 hours. The heat was unconscionable to a northerner such as myself. I ate greasy, unhealthy food, and decided to stop being vegetarian due to the lack of options, fatigue and a general “fuck it” attitude. And there was loneliness. I’m not a phone person in the best of circumstances, and this being my primary means of communication with my wife put a strain on the marriage.

All the while, I was obsessing over how long the job would last, how to find a full-time job back home, and what the hell I was going to do if I didn’t find one. In retrospect, it would’ve been a great situation if I were younger and single. But edging closer to 30, it was not something I was able to deal with psychologically and emotionally.

The boat captains and crew (usually charter fishermen) that I worked with were understandably not happy. While they were compensated by BP in the short term, there was considerable apprehension as to what the future would hold. What would the oil to do the resources they depend on? Would tourists, their source of income, still come? How long until they get to stop driving in circles in the service of remediation and monitoring of a tragedy they had no part in creating? It made my personal anxiety seem cheap by comparison.

On the other hand, I knew the Gulf was big, but seeing it first-hand was awe-inspiring. Flying around on fishing boats, seeing dolphins leaping and pelicans diving, one could easily forget the catastrophe that led to my being there in the first place. Once I got over being seasick, it was pretty cool.

During my time, I have to say I didn’t see very much oil. That was good for my psyche – witnessing oiled wildlife definitely would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life.

To my knowledge, the NRDA I participated in has not been released, either because it’s not ready or because it’s not intended to be released to the public. Probably the latter. However, the government released their NRDA a little under two years ago.

***

A few weeks back, my wife and I visited her parents in New Orleans. The final day of the trip we went on a tour of the marshes south of Houma, the general area of where my first stint was. It’s pretty crazy that the tour we went on is the only one in the area. Most tours are in the bayous north of the salt marshes. The primary tourist activity in and south of them is charter fishing. Perusing some of the rates, it’s no wonder that none of the boat captains are willing to explore mere sightseeing.

The tour was great, but served as a reminder of the negative effects of offshore drilling. The guide didn’t bring up the oil spill, and I didn’t press the issue – I thought it might be a touchy subject. But she had some choice words for the ample consequences of canal-making and maintenance by the oil industry. The chief concerns are flooding and saltwater intrusion. The wetlands have been crucial in limiting both, but “the local cuts and nicks, one acre at a time” are continuing to wreak devastation.

There are other effects as well, some that we could see. Any time one spends time in nature, they are usually blissfully unaware that things might not be great. There could be invasive species, endangered native species, or unseen pollution. To the untrained or uneducated eye, it’s hard to know.

In the salt marshes, as the tour guide helpfully pointed out, the deciduous vegetation lining some of the canals is not native to the area. The excavations, dumped onto the adjacent riparian areas, exposed the dredged muck which allowed long dormant but still viable seeds from upstream to germinate. Obviously I wouldn’t have known this if it weren’t pointed out to me, but the tepid autumn colors of the deciduous trees look very out of place in this region and serve as visual evidence that things aren’t right.

***

The relationship between the petroleum industry is, as it is everywhere oil can be found in the US, complicated. To distill the complications to their essence, it provides jobs but wrecks the environment (profound, I know). Those obtaining monetary rewards care only as much as it affects their bottom line (again, very profound).

Louisiana, as opposed to other locales, has a different relationship with the oil industry [2]. Offshore drilling in California, for example, has been met with widespread protest over the last century. Other areas of the country with shorelines that can be used for amenities (or picturesque enough for private ownership by the obscenely wealthy) are less likely to view offshore drilling as desirable. But in Louisiana, this hasn’t been the case for several reasons:

  • Louisiana’s southern coast contains the most extensive coastal marshlands in the US. Most Louisianans live miles from the coast, and much of it is only accessible by boat. Many have never even seen it.
  • Louisiana has historically been an area of the country where extractive industries reign supreme. In the middle part of the last century when offshore drilling was ramping up, locals were more likely to see it as just another type of industry they were already familiar with – after all, nature is a gift from God to do with as we please.
  • The ubiquity of the oil industry has ensured that just about every family contains one or more members that are employed directly or tangentially. It is a vital component of their local economy.

What brought on the spill, simplistically speaking, was pure hubris. Safety measures were ignored. Federal oversight was lax. The lack of recent catastrophes encouraged personnel to rest on their laurels, exacerbated by the fact that doing so saves money in the short term. Astoundingly, the means of dealing with the spill when it occurred were virtually the same as those used decades ago:

  • Capturing oil via containment booms. They are every bit as pathetic as they look. I recall seeing many a ship drive around aimlessly with their boom up and wondering how the hell they would be of any use.

https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0611/Containment-boom-effort-comes-up-short-in-BP-oil-spill

BP had the foolish belief that nothing bad will ever happen, and they’re certainly not the only oil company who has this point of view. It is endemic to extractive, environmentally destructive entities. Problems can be dealt with when they happen. Hopefully the state of remediation is better now than it was then – especially with Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge edging closer to being opened for drilling.

***

Obviously the oil spill was bad in the short term. But 7-8 years on, how are things? The most recent comprehensive paper I could find was from last year. From it’s abstract:

Research demonstrates that oiling caused a wide range of biological effects, although worst-case impact scenarios did not materialize. Biomarkers in individual organisms were more informative about oiling stress than population and community indices. Salt marshes and seabird populations were hard hit, but were also quite resilient to oiling effects. Monitoring demonstrated little contamination of seafood. Certain impacts are still understudied, such as effects on seagrass communities. Concerns of long-term impacts remain for large fish species, deep-sea corals, sea turtles and cetaceans. These species and their habitats should continue to receive attention (monitoring and research) for years to come.

So the best that can be said is the worst case scenario was avoided. Hooray! That’s good PR for BP – they should use it in their marketing. And so we march on, racing inexorably towards exhausting a nonrenewable resource that, while making lives easier and more convenient for some, is wrecking our planet in so many different ways. On a lighter note, consider seeing the salt marshes of Louisiana. You won’t be disappointed.


[1] The casual, open racism was quite a shock compared to the thinly-veiled Midwestern variety I’m used to.

[2] The following information in the section comes from Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. It came out within a year of the spill and the title is extremely misleading. The “future of energy” takes up around 10 pages, with the bulk of the book providing the historical and sociological contexts that led to and even predicted a spill like this to occur. It was a worthwhile read, though it contained numerous grammatical errors – pretty obvious is the fact they were in a rush to publish. Nevertheless, I would’ve thought MIT Press wouldn’t be so lax in their editing.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s really fascinating stuff; I’m glad you shared it.

    The big events, like wars and disasters, are fractally detailed and everyone experiences them as both an individual and as part of the broader picture – we need to remember that it’s not this big unitary thing, there are a lot of lives caught up in it from so many different directions.. I’m not sure where I’m going with that thought, but I appreciate individual views into historical events. (the BBC “Witness” podcast is a favorite of mine)

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