Gulf Oil Spill Update

Reader Contribution by Sean Rosner

Last month, we posted a blog summarizing what was happening with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But with new developments in this environmental disaster coming along nearly every day, an update is long overdue.

To put it simply, the damage done by the spill so far has been catastrophic, and it’s only getting worse. Oil reached the shores of Louisiana in late May, and has been spreading through crucial wildlife habitats. Photos of oil-drenched animals and workers cleaning goopy, mud-like oil from water and beaches have been all over the media, and that’s something we can be sure to see more of as the summer progresses.

BP has tried and failed at implementing several strategies for stopping the leak, including installing a large containment dome to collect the oil and filling the hole with a mixture of heavy liquid and small objects — a so called “top kill” — to clog the pipe. The latest effort, a cap installed directly on the pipe, has shown some success so far. BP is currently pumping about 11,000 barrels of oil per day up to a ship at the surface, but as you can see from this live video feed of the leak site, there’s still a lot of oil leaking out into the water. BP has indicated that they’ve run out of ideas for trying to plug the leak, so the next prospect for halting the flow of oil is the relief well currently being drilled, but that operation will likely not be completed until August.

There are still drastically different estimates on how much oil is actually leaking into the Gulf, so what portion BP is collecting is uncertain. The federal government recently upped its estimate of daily oil spillage to between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels per day estimates the leak at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day (quite an increase from its previous estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels, let alone the initial estimate of 5,000 gallons per day that we noted in our first blog), but scientists from around the world have given much larger estimates.

Even if you use the government’s estimate, the total size of the spill has now far-eclipsed the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, the United States’ last major oil spill. You can use this great New York Times infographic to track the size of the spill, though it doesn’t take into account the giant plumes of oil that are now being discovered deep beneath the water’s surface. More than 30 percent of the Gulf is now closed to fishing, and there are also worries that the oil could reach a current that will carry it up the Atlantic coast, affecting wildlife and fishing industries beyond the Gulf.

If there’s any silver lining in this cloud, it’s the hope that the disaster will lead to stricter regulation of oil companies and offshore drilling operations, and a possible boost to the clean energy bill that’s currently in the works in senate. The Obama administration has already announced that there will be significant changes happening to the Mineral Management Service, the government agency that oversees offshore drilling, and the administration is also opening a criminal investigation into BP over the oil spill.