The Far-Ranging Costs of the Mess in the Gulf

A blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico creates an environmental catastrophe — but the accident could at last provide the impetus to craft an energy policy that is smart, pragmatic and green

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Eric Gay / AP

Oil blobs and oil sheen gather in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La.

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So far, all the robots' efforts to activate the blowout preventer and shut the well have failed, leaving BP with two options: one fast but unproven and one slow but sure. The company will try to place 70-ton "domes" — shedlike structures, really — over each of the leaks in the broken riser. These should catch the rising oil, allowing it to be pumped to a waiting drill ship on the surface. If the strategy works, the spill could be stopped in a week or so. The problem: this technique has never been tried at such depths. For that reason, the company will also begin drilling a relief well that will allow the leaking well to be sealed with dense liquid. That's a proven way to curtail a blowout, but it's likely to take at least three months — by which time millions of barrels of oil would have escaped. "The first thing is to stop this thing at the source," Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top official for spill response, told reporters on May 1. "The continued leakage of anything for that period of time is going to cause an extraordinary amount of problems for us."

The Oil's Toll
The leak will give the government untold headaches, of course, and it will most likely cost BP billions. But it's people like Charles Robin III, a fifth-generation shrimper on the Louisiana coast, who will really suffer. Robin's livelihood — like that of thousands of Gulf Coast fishermen — could be ruined by the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has banned fishing in much of the Gulf in response to the accident, and by May 2 the oil had made its way to within miles of Robin's home on the Mississippi Delta. "Katrina dug a hole for us," he said, sipping a glass of sweet tea on his 52-ft. (16 m) boat Ellie Margaret. "We're laying in this grave, trying to get out, and this spill comes along."

Fishermen are not the only ones threatened: the very coastline of the Gulf and the rich variety of wildlife that depends on it are also endangered. The bayous and beaches of Louisiana — home to about 40% of the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. — are uniquely vulnerable to an oil spill, especially during the spring breeding season. Oil would be toxic to fish, shrimp and oysters, while shorebirds that come into contact with the crude can end up smothered. If the spill makes its way into the Mississippi Delta, it could soak deeply into the spongelike marshes, and cleaning those wetlands would be far more difficult than the work on the rocky beaches of Alaska's Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989. Even the methods used to battle the spill could end up backfiring: the dispersants being sprayed on the oil slick break up the crude, speeding evaporation, but the chemicals can be toxic to some marine life. "On an index of 1 to 10 for vulnerability, it's a definite 10," says Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University.

If the oil drifts into the aptly named Loop Current, a surge of warm water that circulates in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, it could begin a much feared trip around the southern tip of Florida and northward, where the Keys, the Everglades and the beaches of the East Coast of the U.S. lie exposed.

The only sure way to prevent all that from happening will be to bandage the bleeding well before the oil chokes the Gulf and to defend the coast in the meantime. Thousands of personnel — many of them volunteers — have been mobilized as part of the response, and more than 500,000 ft. (152,000 m) of boom has been deployed to shield the coastline. BP is also trying what's known as an in situ burn, corralling the slick with booms and setting it on fire. So far the weather has been the sole piece of good luck the workers have enjoyed, as winds and currents have kept the oil from making landfall, giving authorities time to bolster their preparations, like an army fortifying against an invasion. "We've been really lucky in many ways," says Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "But people need to understand — once there is oil released, there will be damage eventually."

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