Catastrophe in the Gulf: How Bad Could It Get?

The ongoing oil spill is an environmental calamity like none the U.S. has ever faced. And it's not just residents of the vulnerable Gulf who will get hit by it. This time we're all going to feel the pain

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

When Captain James Peters kicks his three engines into high gear, hold on to your hat — and your body too, if you don't want to end up overboard in the Mississippi Delta. Ordinarily on a clear June day like this one, Peters would be taking out a pack of eager sport fishermen from his home port in the southeastern Louisiana town of Venice, a community that proudly bills itself as the fishing capital of the world. But since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 — triggering a spill that is bleeding hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico — there hasn't been a whole lot of fishing in Louisiana. So instead, Peters has been escorting scientists and environmentalists like Maura Wood, the program manager for the National Wildlife Federation's Louisiana coastal program, to see the oil and its effects on the wetlands firsthand.

As the boat roars out of the marshes and into the open water southwest of Venice, Wood and her colleagues pass the oil and gas platforms scattered just beyond the Mississippi Delta, oddly birdlike with their long steel legs and tightly nestled mechanical bodies elevated above the water. It takes a while, but 16 miles (26 km) into the Gulf, Wood finds what she's looking for: a long band of reddish oil, thick enough to muffle the wake of Peters' boat. Up close, the petroleum — refracting the punishing Gulf sunlight — looks like a malignant lesion on the skin of the water. Wood puts on a respirator to protect herself from the fumes and drops a hand into the muck. It emerges with brown, sludgy crude clinging to the blue latex of her glove. "You can see how it adheres and what that would mean for the wildlife," she says. "This could mean the destruction of the fabric of life on the Gulf."

From the day the oil began spewing from energy giant BP's partially blown well thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf, it was obvious that a major environmental disaster was unfolding. As the weeks passed and BP failed to cap the well, the worst-case scenarios just kept getting worse. By the end of May, according to the best estimates of the daily leakage rate, the well had poured at least 20 million gal. (75 million L) of crude into the Gulf, perhaps much more, making it far and away the worst oil spill in U.S. History — nearly double the output of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. But when BP's most recent attempt to stop the bleeding — the top-kill method — met with failure on May 29, it became clear that the crisis wouldn't end for weeks, maybe even months. Though BP announced it would try a cap over the well to divert the spewing oil, its officials admit that even if the new method is successful, about 20% of the oil will continue to leak, at least until a relief well is completed in August.

Already oil has stained some of the marshes of southern Louisiana — home to 40% of the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. — disrupting the habitats of shorebirds, sea turtles and other threatened species. Beyond the shoreline, by June 2, Washington had banned fishing in more than 37% of the federal Gulf of Mexico waters — more than 88,000 sq. mi. (228,000 sq km) — a body blow to the region's valuable fishing industry. That's nearly double the area that was off-limits on May 18, an indication of where the trend lines are pointing. And many scientists believe that the greatest threat could be below the surface, where independent researchers say they've found evidence of miles-long plumes of oil potentially poisoning sea life and disrupting the marine food chain.

We take some comfort from the fact that we've faced similar crises before. We more or less survived Katrina, didn't we? But disasters like hurricanes tend to confine their devastation to one or two luckless cities. This time, everyone is going to suffer: 15% of the U.S.'s seafood comes from the Gulf; 14 million people live along a five-state stretch of coast in the path of the oil. BP's plummeting share price is driving down the rest of the energy sector and dragging on an already battered economy — a nationwide pocketbook effect that will only worsen as thousands of Gulf-region families dependent on fishing and tourism lose their livelihoods.

While BP and Washington fight over the brief cycles of stock prices and overnight polls, the larger effect will be a much longer-lasting burden. "This is something that will impact the environment on the shoreline and on the sea," says Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "And not just for years. This will be felt for generations."

The Kill That Didn't
The top-kill method was always going to be a long shot, the last in a series of fallbacks. BP's first attempt to stop the flow of oil involved using underwater robots to activate the stuck blowout preventer above the well, the shutoff valve that should have engaged automatically when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded. When that failed, BP tried to lower a massive containment dome over the leak to catch the oil as it rose and then pump it to a ship on the surface. But the ultra-cold temperatures 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) below the surface — even in the balmy Gulf of Mexico — generated icy methane hydrate crystals that clogged the dome. A drainage tube 4 in. (10 cm) wide that was inserted into the leaking pipe failed as well, collecting just a fraction of the oil. In each case, BP and the government brain trust advising the company at its Houston command center were defeated by the sheer complexity of attempting such work so deep in the abyss. "The challenge here is working at 5,000 feet," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, at a May 15 press conference — which raised the question of what BP was doing trying to operate at that depth in the first place.

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