An aerial photograph taken last week of a rip current 62 miles from the wellhead. Image courtesy of Blake Gordon
We asked Surfer Foundation's environmental director Chad Nelsen, head of their Not the Answer anti-offshore drilling initiative, to lend some perspective on the escalating situation in the Gulf of Mexico as continued efforts to stop the surging oil fail. Plus find out what you can do to help out (but get your HazMat training first).—Mary Anne Potts
What aspect of this disaster gets to you the most?
The element of this disaster that gets to me the most is that three weeks ago the oil industry was telling us that new technology has made offshore drilling 100 percent safe. Now we know that not only is it not 100 percent safe, the industry doesn't actually know what to do when there is a spill like this. It should noted that there was a similar deep water oil blowout in the East Timor Sea last summer that took 70 days to stop. Further, this disaster is revealing that the safety regulations for this type of drilling have been lax and not always in compliance.
The myths that have been perpetuated about offshore oil drilling are being exposed and we hope that the public will realize that new offshore oil drilling is not the answer to our energy needs.You are a longtime advocate of no new drilling through Surfrider's Not the Answer initiative. How would you characterize the efforts to stop the oil well from leaking?
I would characterize the current attempts as desperate. We are 27 days into this spill and its likely that millions of gallons are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day, with no real end in sight.
The oil is leaking at 5,000 feet below the surface and the underwater environment at that depth is challenging to say the least. It is dark, cold, and the water pressure is strong enough to crush a submarine, so all the work must be done by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
It seems that almost everyday a new attempt is discussed, but its not clear that any of them will fully contain the spill. The first attempt to lower a containment dome over the leak failed because the dome was getting clogged by methane hydrates (frozen gas). Just this weekend, BP successfully inserted a smaller 4-inch pipe into the main leak, but it isn’t clear how much of the flow is being captured.
Another smaller dome called a "top hat" is currently being experimented with. BP is also considering another approach called the "junk shot," where plastic debris is jammed into the leak to stop the flow. All of these attempts are unproven and experimental so we have no idea if any of them will work.
The only method that is proven to work is to drill a relief well and could be used to intersect with the existing well below ground and then plug it with cement. That process is underway but could take several months.
In the meantime, the leak is gushing what appears to be millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. At this point, it appears safe to say that the spill has far exceeded the oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez spill.
What changes should beach-goers expect to see this summer at their favorite swimming and surfing beaches?
This is a tough question to answer at present because we don't know exactly where the giant oil slick will go. Here's a good reference to see the extent and direction of the spill: http://blog.skytruth.org/
The impact will depend on where wind and currents take the oil. Thus far, the areas that have been most affected are the barrier islands around the mouth of the Mississippi river that are almost due north of the leak. Recent reports suggest that the oil is moving west, but that could change at anytime. The areas that the spill is currently impacting are wetland areas and barrier beaches with limited public access. If the oil heads west and starts hitting the beaches along Alabama and Florida, we are likely to see serious impacts to swimming and surfing beaches. If that occurs, beaches will probably be closed to avoid human contact with the toxic oil.
The big fear is that the oil slick will move into the loop current of the gulf stream and gets sucked down through the Florida keys and then up the East Coast of Florida. If that happens, the extent of the impact will be multiplied by many times (read more from National Geographic News). Researchers also just discovered a large underwater plume of oil that is up to three miles wide and ten miles long and 300 feet thick traveling below the surface.
Its clear that the fate of all the oil is an unknown, and we are learning every day about the magnitude and impacts of this spill.
One thing we are asking beachgoers and surfers to do is help us document any oil found on beaches, using a internet-based mapping tool developed by our partners at SkyTruth. Using this Oil Spill Tracker site you can simply and easily report any oil found on the beach or along the coast by marking the location on a map, describing the what was observed and upload a photo. The site is: http://oilspill.skytruth.org
What is likely to happen to the gulf's wildlife?
The spill is already affecting marine life that lives in the open ocean and there are serious concerns about the toxicity of the dispersant that is being used to prevent the oil from washing ashore. Birds and mammals are particularly prone to being oiled and the oil can also have devastating effects on sensitive wetland ecosystems (read more from National Geographic News).
As the oil moves ashore, wetland areas are going to be particularly vulnerable. These areas are nurseries for much of the sea life in the Gulf of Mexico and are particularly threatened because there is no way to clean them. Once the oil gets into wetlands, there is no getting it out. More frightening is that the Exxon Valdez spill has shown that these impacts can last decades.
To make matters worse, the plume that was recently discovered is depleting oxygen from the waters of the Gulf, probably as a result of bacteria that are attacking the oil and the dispersant. Low oxygen levels are what lead to dead zones in the ocean where sea life cannot survive, so the underwater plumes may have devastating impacts that we cannot see directly.
Its clear that we are only just beginning to understand the size and scope of this ecological disaster, and I think we'll be learning about the impacts for decades to come as the toxic chemicals associated with the oil and the dispersant move through the ecosystem.
What will happen to the oil in the Gulf over time?
I think the truth is we have no idea what the overall fate of the oil will be. We know some oil will wash ashore, some will deposit on the bottom of the sea as a result of the dispersants, some will travel as underwater plumes, a small amount will be captured and burned, some will evaporate and fall back to land or sea as a component of rain fall. At this stage, there is no agreement on the total volume of oil that has spilled let alone where it is all going, so I imagine we will be learning about the extent of the oil and its fate for months if not years to come.
What can people do to get involved with the clean-up or other efforts?
There are a number of ways volunteers can get involved both if they live local to the area of the spill or if they live elsewhere.
Because the oil is very toxic and is considered a hazardous material, it is very important to get official HazMat training before doing any clean up. You can go to our Not the Answer website to get notifications and information about training programs.
Volunteers who are not interested in direct clean up can help photo document and report oil incidents through our SkyTruth website at: http://oilspil.skytruth.org.
If you don't live in the regional of the spill, you can use our action alert system to send a message to President Obama and Congress making is clear that you think expanding offshore drilling is not the answer at: http:www.surfrider.org/nodrilling
Your position is that we need a comprehensive energy overhaul strategy and no new drilling, right? Do you find people are just waking up to your cause since this tragedy?
The Surfrider Foundation has been focused on stopping new domestic offshore drilling because the amount of oil available offshore won't put a dent in our supply relative to our consumption. We use about 20 million gallons of oil day, we produce about eight million gallons per day, and under the most optimistic projections we could find an additional 2-4 million gallons a day offshore. This tells me that if we want to get off foreign oil and reduce price and the pump, there is only one thing that will work and that is reducing our consumption.
It's clear that we need to improve efficiency in transportation, whether that is improving fuel efficiency, mass transportation, or how we develop our communities and also look to renewable sources of energy that don't rely on hydrocarbons.