History”s largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Posted on May 10, 2010 in Environment, GlobeScope

Rohan Gupta:

After an explosion on 20th April in the Deepwater Horizon oilrig owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico region oil has been pouring into the gulf at about 210,000 gallons per day. It is deemed to be the greatest oil spill in history as the oil is leaking from an oil well below the surface of the sea, making it extremely difficult to predict the quantity of oil. BP PLC has taken full responsibility for the spill and has engaged itself in the clean up operation along with the US Coast Guard and army.

Various species of whales, dolphins and sea turtles face a dire threat from the oil spill. All these animals come to the surface of the water to breathe and hence will face immense problems in getting fresh oxygen due to the layer of oil covering the surface. The oil has now also washed up on various island forest reserves. The Breton islands and the Chandeleur Islands are home to various migratory birds, 2,000 nesting pairs of brown pelicans, 5,000 pairs of royal terns, 5,000 pairs of Caspian terns, and 5,000 pairs of various seagulls and shorebirds. Pelicans and other birds were found covered in oil on the uninhabited Chandeleur Islands.

A story by NDTV predicts a sad legacy for the region based on the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24, 1989 which dumped 11 million gallons into the ocean, contaminating 1,500 miles of coastline, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds (herrings in particular), otters, seals and whales, and devastating local communities. 21 years later, herring numbers have still not recovered completely even though the spill stopped after a few days.

Birds covered in oil in the gulf of Mexico

To prevent further and continuous spilling of oil which is leading to waste of the resource and damage to the environment while posing threats of contamination of water and air supply for people, response teams are trying to place a 40 ft tall iron box, weighing 98 tonnes on the leak which is 5000 ft down on the sea bed. They hope to funnel and collect around 85% of the oil being released. This technology has earlier been used in shallow waters but never at such high pressure and depths. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen is in charge of the response team. He had earlier in 2002 lead a mock drill about 10 miles off the Louisiana Coast which he says offered valuable insights on how to del with such an ‘unthinkable scenario’. However he is haunted by things which not anticipated in the drill.

With such a major environmental crisis many activists, in the U.S., are demanding a complete ban on all offshore oil drilling oil wells have large quantities of oil expected to serve as a resource. Approval of various other such projects has already been halted by the U.S. Senate. Brazil has already started an investigation into its well control systems and emergency responses and is awaiting report on whether a change in policy and practices is needed.

The sea bed may potentially consist of large quantities of oil which may help serve as tools of economic development specially for developing nations. In the wake of this disaster is there a need to completely eliminate the possibility of such an accident or simply to improve safety standards?