Oil in the Gulf: Half the Spill Remains with Unknown Impacts and Damages

Despite the attention-grabbing headlines today pronouncing the oil is gone, a hard look at the government’s new report reveals the oil still very much exits. While it's good news that there's much less oil on the surface waters of the Gulf, that's not the only place where the oil still poses a risk; there's still a lot of oil out there, in the Gulf and along the coast.

The report entitled “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened to the Oil” provides an estimate of the fate of the 4.9 million barrels of oil released during the Gulf oil disaster, the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. While the focus of the coverage has been on the positive news that the warm waters and rich microbial productivity in the Gulf have kept some of the most dire scenarios from being realized, it is important to understand that the report shows that a huge amount of the oil is still in the environment. In fact, as much as half the oil (over 100 million gallons) may still be in the system. That’s an enormous amount of oil, the equivalent of nine Exxon Valdez-sized oil spills.

From the very beginning, the Gulf oil disaster has been defined by what we don’t know. How much oil is gushing? We're just now getting clarity on that. Are the chemical dispersants helping or hurting? Still up for debate. How do you stop the gushing? It took three months to figure that out. So unfurling the Mission Accomplished banner today is premature at best and unrealistic at worst. Here’s why:

The report categorizes 26 percent of the oil as “residual” (oil that is difficult to quantify but that is on or just below the surface as light sheen or weathered tar balls, on the shoreline, buried in sand and sediments, or already collected from the shore). Clearly, a lot of this oil is still in the Gulf environment, as witnessed by my colleague, Rocky Kistner, here. An additional 24 percent of the oil is categorized as (naturally or chemically) “dispersed oil.” But “dispersed” doesn’t equal “gone” – it’s simply missing from view like a criminal on the lam. According to the report, dispersed oil can be, until degraded, toxic even in dilute amounts to vulnerable species. Government scientists are now studying the degradation rates for this dispersed oil.

If you do the math, that means as much as 50 percent of the oil could still be affecting the environment, both offshore and along the coastline. Again – that’s NINE Exxon Valdez spills.

Importantly, the report states that federal scientists remain “extremely concerned” about the impact of the spill to the Gulf ecosystem. They recognize that full understanding the impacts of this spill on wildlife, habitats, and the natural resources of the Gulf region will take time and continued monitoring and research are needed. In fact, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of NOAA, one of the lead agencies on the report, said at the White House briefing today, that the effects of the spill could linger for decades and the extent of the impacts won’t be known for years, possibly decades.  This was the case in the Exxon Valdez oil spill where it only became apparent several years after the spill that key fisheries were affected and decades later that toxic oil still exists in the sediments of Prince William Sound’s shores. And at a congressional hearing on dispersants today, scientists agreed that the unprecedented amount and use of chemical dispersants at that depth was a grand experiment in the Gulf, and it will take at least several years to fully understand the direct and indirect effects of this on species and on the system as a whole.

It is essential that we not to be lulled into complacency. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the government does the necessary monitoring and research to get a full and fair assessment of the natural resource damages resulting from the spill. And we must demand transparency in the work the government and BP do to assess the environmental impacts. Today’s report was a series of findings, but where is the data for those findings?   

Ultimately, this data is essential for the restoration efforts. BP is liable for these damages under the Oil Pollution Act and the money it pays for those damages can and should be used to restore, rehabilitate, replace or acquire the equivalent of the natural resources damaged by the spill. Our understanding of the impacts of this massive spill, as this report acknowledges, is just beginning.

After all, one thing we learned from Katrina – 5 years ago this month – is that the damage persists long after the storm blows through.