Gulf of Mexico: one year on

20 Apr

It was a whole year ago today that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was engulfed in flames after methane gas from the well, under high pressure, shot up the drill column and exploded, killing 11 people and releasing over 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean; it was the worst accidental offshore oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

Superficially, things seem to be going back to normal: tourists are beginning to return to the area, the fishing industry is beginning to recover, pelicans are beginning to nest on outlying islands. Even the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has begun to issue permits for offshore drilling again: 11 deepwater and 49 shallow water. And the cleanup operations are coming to an end. BP appointed an advisor to coordinate the cleanup of beaches, whose first assessment of 4,000 miles of coast identified 1,000 miles that had been affected, 200 of which were heavily oiled. According to official reports, only 15 miles of heavily oiled beach remain to be cleaned.

On closer inspection, however, everything is not quite as it should be. Scientists cannot agree about how much oil there is left in the Gulf to clean up; researchers at the University of Georgia predict that up to 50% of the oil spilled is still in the ocean, yet other independent scientists say there is not sufficient evidence to support this. Samantha Joyce from the university believes most of the oil is lying at the bottom of the ocean, a claim that contradicts the Obama administration’s assertions. Many Gulf Coast residents are reporting illnesses seemingly caused by the spill. And while marine life seems to be struggling (there are unusually high numbers of dead dolphins along the coast and reports of anglers catching fish with large legions and rotting fins), state officials are still in the process of recording the harm that has been done. Initial reports indicate it is not as bad as first predicted, yet a full survey of the seabed is still to be carried out.

With so many areas of uncertainty surrounding the disaster, it may be many more years before we know the full extent of the damage done.

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