A View of the Oil Damage Below the Surface

Now that BP’s “top kill” effort to plug the Deepwater Horizon well has failed, oil will most likely be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico until August. This is an outrageous situation: we will be watching oil devastate our coasts for months to come.

But I am also concerned about what the oil is doing in places we can’t see: far from shore, underwater, and out of the view of most cameras.

That is why this live feed of the ruptured well is so powerful: it reminds us that this is a deepwater crisis endangering one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. (Please be aware that views from BP's live stream may vary or freeze momentarily.)

A spill at this depth presents enormous challenges. The Exxon Valdez spill was incredibly daunting, of course, but it was an acute event that released all of its oil in a short period of time close to the shore. It was like a massive heart attack.

The Gulf spill is more like a prolonged case of cancer in an organ hard to operate on. When I went to Louisiana a few weeks ago, it took us over an hour to fly by helicopter from the coast to the Deepwater Horizon site. It is nearly 50 miles out in the sea.

And it is deep below the surface. The spill is feeding oil into the water column, some of it making its way to the top layer where much of the marine lifecycle exists. Invertebrates linger below the surface, and fish hang around to eat the invertebrates. Many species deposit their eggs and larvae here, especially in spring when the explosion occurred.

With oil dispersed throughout the water column, we could see contamination moving up the food chain for years to come.  And if the subsurface oil plumes crash into the shallow continental shelf, it could jeopardize the grouper and snapper--some of the Gulf’s most productive commercial fisheries. It could also jeopardize deep sea corals that occur in places along the ocean floor.

The scale of this disaster is nothing short of horrific, and as we begin to wrap our arms around it, NRDC is already working to help prevent future disasters. We have pressed the White House to impose a moratorium all new offshore activity while an independent investigation is underway and to halt lease sales in fragile regions like the Arctic Ocean.

I pleased to report that President Obama has followed most of our recommendations, although we are still pushing for stronger safeguards in some areas.

In the meantime, we must all confront the question: why was the Deepwater Horizon well installed 5,000 feet underwater in the first place?

Because our voracious appetite for oil demands it. It is time for Congress to pass a clean energy and climate bill that will help us reduce our reliance on oil and protect our coasts--and our deepwater marine life--from further harm. Tell your senators to support it here.

About the Authors

Frances Beinecke

Former President

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