Bird conservationists fear the spreading Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect not only local birdlife but migratory bird populations as far north as Alaska, and as far south as South America. The spill, now 100 miles long by 48 miles wide, is being pushed onshore by the prevailing southeast winds and is expected to hit the Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands imminently.
The state bird of Louisiana, the brown pelican, removed from the US Endangered Species list only late last year, nests on the coastal islands of Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the Chandeleur Islands. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs.
“This spill spells disaster for birds in this region and beyond,” says George Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. “The complexity of the Gulf coastline, with numerous bays, estuaries, inlets, marshes and creeks, will make cleanup extremely difficult. Impacts could last for decades for much of the habitat, and some species may suffer significant long-term population declines.”
The oil spill is fed by oil gushing at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day from a broken wellhead on the sea floor about 51 miles southeast of Venice, La. The pipe was left uncapped by the fiery explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon last week, in which 11 crewmembers lost their lives. Now lying on the sea floor 1,500 feet from the wellhead, the rig is owned by the Swiss company Transocean and was leased by BP Exploration and Production.
BP as well as federal and state agencies are deploying skimmers and chemical dispersants in an attempt to control the oil spill, but on April 30 it reached the Louisiana wetlands at the tip of the Mississippi Delta.
“The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them,” said Melanie Driscoll, a conservation director with the National Audubon Society, who is monitoring the situation from her base in Louisiana.
“For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore,” she said.
The Gulf Coast is important for hundreds of species of migratory birds, which breed, winter, and rest here during migration. The second Sunday in May is celebrated as International Migratory Bird Day, but this year there will be nothing to celebrate.
“It is ironic that next weekend is International Migratory Bird Day,” said Fenwick. “At a time when we should be celebrating the beauty and wonder of migratory birds, we could be mourning the worst environmental disaster in recent US history.”
All coastal nesting species–herons, terns, skimmers, plovers, gulls, rails and ducks–are now present on the Gulf coast, including several species on the US WatchList of birds of conservation concern.
Many North American summer songbirds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico twice each year between their nesting grounds and wintering areas in Latin America. Most of the spring migrants, such as warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers and swallows, move across the gulf during a two-week period from late April to early May.
Songbirds, not normally directly affected by oil spills, could be harmed by smoke from the burning oil set aflame in an attempt to minimize damage to marine life.
“Millions of our songbirds are crossing the Gulf now, and will arrive stateside perilously weak and undernourished from their journey,” said Fenwick. “The smoke may well compound their precarious situation and potentially lead to birds failing to make it to shore, or arriving so weakened that they are unable to survive.”
The impact to all these bird species depends on how long the leak lasts and what happens with weather and currents. The leak could persist for weeks or months, and end up being the worst environmental disaster in US history, bird conservationists fear.
Sites designated as Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy are directly in the path of the spill. Ten sites at most immediate risk are:
Gulf Coast Least Tern Colony, one of the world’s largest colonies of the threatened least tern.
Pascagoula River Coastal Preserve, coastal marshes at the mouth of the river support yellow and black rails, snowy plovers, and endangered wintering piping plovers.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, which hosts thousands of wintering shorebirds, including endangered piping plover, Wilson’s plover, and American oystercatcher, as well as brown pelican, black-crowned night-heron, white ibis, and black skimmer.
Breton National Wildlife Refuge, including the Chandeleur Islands, the largest tern colony in North America, as well as an important wintering area for magnificent frigatebird, and stopover site for redhead and lesser scaup
Dauphin Island, an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.
Fort Morgan Historical Park, also an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a satopover for thousands of trans-Gulf migrants.
Eglin Air Force Base, a significant coastal habitat for shorebirds and wading birds.
Delta National Wildlife Refuge, nesting area for large numbers of wading birds, including white ibis, snowy egrets, and herons; thousands of shorebirds use the mudflats in winter and during migration, including dunlin, long-billed dowitcher, and western sandpiper, as well as the endangered piping plover.
Baptiste Collette Bird Islands, an artificial barrier created from dredge spoil, and now habitat for the Caspian tern, brown pelican, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer.
“It is unfortunate that it takes a potential disaster to remind the nation of the risks involved with our addiction to oil,” said Audubon legislative director Mike Daulton. “This spill would give anyone pause regarding the pursuit of risky drilling in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. For the long term, we need to move as quickly as possible from the addiction to fossil fuels to the promise of clean, renewable energy.”
“Although we are encouraged by the White House announcement that no new areas will be opened up to drilling until this spill has been fully investigated, Shell has announced plans to move forward with drilling in the Arctic, an area just as ecologically fragile as the Gulf, and where cleanup technology doesn’t even exist,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It is time for President Obama to reinstate the moratorium on all drilling off of US shores, ensuring that we can deal with the situation at hand without opening another part of our country up to similar disaster,” said Clark. “Hopefully this catastrophe will be a wake-up call for Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation that moves us beyond drilling along our fragile coastline and towards a cleaner greener energy future.” (Environment News Service, April 30)
See our last posts on the politics of oil spills.
round up the usual suspects
With an acoustic switch this may not have happened. They are in use all over the world except … Dick Cheney deregulated them from being required off the shore of the US early in the Bush administration. And it turns out Halliburton had completed the final cementing of the oil well and pipe just 20 hours before the blowout. And Daily Kos points out that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu mocked the off shore oil rig safety regulations recently.
This would be satire if it wasn’t such a big disaster.
How big is the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, really?
The Christian Science Monitor reported May 1 that many independent scientists believe the leak is spewing far more than the 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, per day being reported by most media sources. They believe the leak could be discharging up to 25,000 barrels (more than one million gallons) of crude oil a day right now.
On May 11, Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America, was grilled on Capitol Hill by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) about what the company is prepared to take responsibility for. McKay kept repeating like a mantra that BP will honor “all legitimate claims.” When pressed by Cantwell as to whether this included compensation for longterm economic impacts, he refused to be nailed down, but again took refuge behind his mantra. (Huffington Post, May 11)
In Biloxi, St. Michael Catholic Church went ahead with the annual “Blessing of the Fleet” marking the opening of the shrimping season. “We certainly want to celebrate how God has fed us out of the Gulf for many centuries,” said Fr. Greg Barras. “There seems to be some fear that with the oil spill, that it’s gradually getting closer to shore, and that will then cancel the Blessing of the Fleet.” But the pastor said the celebration will go on this year, and prayers for the fishermen are needed more than ever. (WLOX, Biloxi, May 11)
70,000 barrels a day?
From The Guardian, May 13:
An Exxon Valdez every four days…
The above Guardian story confuses gallons and barrels. The Exxon Valdez disaster dumped nearly 11 million gallons, or 250,000 barrels. So if Steven Wereley is correct that the Deepwater Horizon is pouring 70,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily, that’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every four days. (NPR, May 14)
Giant oil plumes under Gulf of Mexico
From the New York Times, May 16:
Coral reefs tainted by Gulf of Mexico oil spill
Delicate coral reefs already have been tainted by plumes of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, including the sensitive Pinnacles area that federal officials had tried to protect from drilling and other threats. And marine scientists fear that even more of the deep-sea reefs could be damaged as the thick goo creeps into two powerful Gulf currents. The Loop Current could carry oil from the spill east and spread it to the Florida Keys, while the Louisiana coastal current could move the oil as far west as central Texas. (AP, LAT, May 17)
BP is now siphoning up to 1,000 barrels of oil a day from the undersea leak with a flexible tube inserted into one section of leaking pipe. The well has been leaking since April 20, when a blowout in BP’s Macondo well destroyed the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, killed 11 crew members, and triggered the spill threatening the Gulf Coast. (Houston Chronicle, May 17)
The spill appears to have claimed its first bureaucratic head, with the resignation of Chris Oynes, head of offshore drilling for the Mineral Management Service. The resignation of Oynes, who was due to retire later this year, comes as President Barack Obama launched an independent commission into the huge oil spill. The panel will supplant the current investigation being carried out by the MMS and the Coast Guard. (London Times, May 18)
Gulf disaster: from cap and trade to “cap and pray”
With media accounts portraying the partial stemming of the flow of oil as a sign of “hope,” quotes from scientists warning of an underestimation of the disaster are invariably hidden in the small print. A May 17 AP story, “BP hopes to siphon up to half of oil in Gulf,” stated in the ninth paragraph:
And the last two paragraphs (keep in mind that newspaper editors cut from the bottom):
The New York Times reported back on May 3 that BP was working on a large containment dome that is intended to cap the leak and catch the escaping oil so that it can be safely pumped to the surface. (Two weeks later, that hasn’t come to pass).
Almost every report says that BP is doing everything it can to contain the spill and stop the leak, even though the company claims it is not technically at fault. According to a May 4 article from the UK Daily Mail, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward recently responded to the cleanup efforts by explaining, “This is not our accident but it is our responsibility to deal with it.”
Swiss-based Transocean is the company that actually owned and operated the sunken rig. It manned the rig with its own crew and BP just leased it from Transocean (which makes you wonder why BP is so willing to take full responsibility for everything).
BP says that it’s working on a relief well, but that it could take up to three months to complete. Until then, the company is trying several different approaches to at least slow the leak and hopefully stop it altogether.
Mind you, almost all of the information about the spill from day one has come directly from BP which obviously has every incentive to downplay the true environmental destruction that could be caused by this oil spill.
Even the word “spill” is incorrect. This isn’t some ship of oil that spilled into the ocean—it’s a “volcano” of oil spewing from the earth itself. It’s under extremely high pressure, it’s spewing a huge volume of oil directly into the ocean, and there so far seems to be no human-engineered way of stopping it… (Natural News, May 4)
BP admits it…
From AP, May 20:
BP concedes Gulf oil spill is bigger than estimate
NEW ORLEANS — BP conceded Thursday that more oil than it estimated is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico as heavy crude washed into Louisiana’s wetlands for the first time, feeding worries and uncertainty about the massive monthlong spill.
Mark Proegler, a spokesman for oil giant BP PLC, told The Associated Press that a mile-long tube inserted into a leaking pipe over the weekend is capturing 210,000 gallons a day — the total amount the company and the Coast Guard have estimated is gushing into the sea — but some is still escaping. He would not say how much.
Several professors who have watched video of the leak have said they believe the amount spewing out is much higher than official estimates.
Proegler said the 210,000 gallons — 5,000 barrels — has always been just an estimate because there is no way to measure how much is spilling from the seafloor…
A live video feed of the leak posted online Thursday at the insistence of lawmakers shows what appears to be a large plume of oil and gas still spewing next to the tube that’s carrying some of it to the surface. The House committee website where it was posted promptly crashed because so many people were trying to view it.
“What you see are real-time images of a real-world disaster unfolding 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf,” said U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. “These videos stand as a scalding, blistering indictment of BP’s inattention to the scope and size of the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.”
…Small amounts of light oil have washed up in delicate coastal areas of Louisiana over the past several weeks, but nothing like the brown ooze from the spill that started coating marsh grasses and hanging in the shallow water of a wetland Wednesday.
“This is the heavy oil that everyone’s been fearing that is here now,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a boat tour Wednesday in southeastern Louisiana. The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River are home to rare birds, mammals and a wide variety of marine life.
A young brown pelican, one wing and its neck matted with oil, was found dead Thursday morning on a sand spit in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, a renowned bird sanctuary eight miles off Louisiana’s coast that had so far been shielded from the worst of the spill. Scientists said it’s likely oil killed it.
Much of southeast Louisiana’s coastal waters have been closed to fishing and oyster harvesting because of the oil. A vast area stretching east toward Florida in federal waters also has been closed to seafood harvesting.
Oil Rig Disaster
For the life of me, I can NOT comprehend why our president and this administration is giving the green light to start drilling for oil in the Arctic very soon–as in a few weeks. What is the rush? With the best of intentions, anything can go wrong with these rigs– fail proof or not. In the Arctic, if something similar occurs, then kiss that part of the Coastal World goodbye forever. I read that there is a much great chance for a similar oil rig disaster there than in the Gulf, there is no hope for rescue and restoration because of the type of conditions there.
I am so thoroughly disgusted with choices being made to continue drilling- Clearly Big Energy and the Petroleum industry are wedded with our government. Big Energy being the domininate partner in that relationship; with our governmenent catering to their every whim while they turn a deaf ear to the masses.
Gulf oil spill: government remains blind to underwater hazard
Dan Froomkin on Huffington Post, May 20:
When CBS tried to film a beach with heavy oil on the shore in South Pass, La., a boat of BP contractors, and two Coast Guard officers, told them to turn around, or be arrested. “This is BP’s rules, it’s not ours,” someone aboard the boat said. Coast Guard officials told CBS that they’re looking into it. As the Coast Guard is a branch of the Armed Forces, it brings into question how closely the government and BP are working together to keep details of the disaster in the dark. (Huffington Post, May 19)
BP defies EPA warning on dispersant
From AP, May 22:
Oil could be “impossible to remove” from wetlands
From AP, May 22:
Meanwhile, you can watch the rate of oil gushing into the Gulf with the “ticker” posted by PBS…
BP “more interested in saving the well”?
From the Times-Picayune, May 23:
Nonetheless, demands are growing for the federal government to take over the clean-up, and hand BP the bill. “If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way,” Salazar said in response to such demands. (AFP, May 23)
“Top Kill” not working
From the New York Times, May 27:
Which brings us to…
“Biggest spill in US history”
From the New York Times, May 27:
Lessons of Ixtoc I
With BP’s “top kill” effort faltering, media reports are recalling the June 1979 Ixtoc I disaster in Mexican waters of the Gulf—the Bay of Campeche, off the Yucatan Peninsula, to be exact. As as with Deepwater Horizon, Ixtoc I was being drilled (by the Mexican state oil company Pemex) when it suffered a catastrophic wellhead blowout, leading to the platform’s collapse. Over the next nine months, it spewed some 3.3 million barrels into the waters of the Gulf—making it the largest accidental oil spill in history. It is exceeded only by the intentional spilling of some 8 million barrels into the Persian Gulf by the Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War.
The Ixtoc I disaster happened in much more shallow waters than Deepwater Horizon. The oil gushed right to the surface, and currents slowly took it north as far as Texas, killing turtles, sea birds and other sea life. Pemex tried stopping the gusher with a dome (subbed a “sombrero”), but this failed. It was only brought under control with the drilling of a relief well to relieve the pressure. BP is to drill two relief wells to similarly halt the current gusher—but says that completion is at least two months away… (LAT, AP, May 30; Investopedia, May 26; McClatchy Newspapers, May 22; Incident News, NOAA)
Justice Department to launch criminal probe of BP oil spill
US Attorney General Eric Holder announced June 1 that the Department of Justice is reviewing whether any criminal or civil laws were violated by BP resulting in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Holder cited several statutes being examined by government lawyers including the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Clean Water Act includes both civil and criminal penalties, and the Oil Pollution Act can be used to hold parties liable for cleanup costs. Holder reiterated the government’s commitment to ensuring that justice is served: “[E]very cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed. We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy. And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.” (Jurist, June 1)
“Cut and cap” hits snag
From the NY Daily News, June 2:
Oil hits Florida coast; will “cut and cap” backfire?
For the first time, the impact of the worst oil spill in US history began to be felt in Florida—on Pensacola Beach, where 11 BP crews began cleanup operation June 4. The brunt of the spill has thus far fell on southern Louisiana, where oil struck the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, coating 60 birds, including 41 pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry. (Miami Herald, June 5)
The oil has now reached the shores of four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida—turning their marshlands into death zones for wildlife and staining their beaches rust and crimson in an affliction that some said recalled biblical plagues. Six weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion, the well has leaked somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil, by government estimates. (AP, June 4)
BP now reports that the “cut and cap” operation is working But the Coast Guard’s Admiral Thad Allen said June 4 that the cap placed over the leaking well was only collecting oil at a rate of 42,000 gallons a day. Recent estimates put the leak’s flow at 500,000 to a million gallons a day. That figure may have increased by 20% after the pipe at the top of the blowout preventer was cut off during BP’s latest attempt to staunch the flow.
“If the cap doesn’t work, we’re going to have three times the amount of oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” conservationist Rick Steiner told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann June 3. As much as 46 million gallons have already leaked into the Gulf. If the “cut and cap” operation fails there could be more than 138 million gallons of oil spilled before a relief well is finished in August. (Raw Story, June 4)
BP chief Tony Hayward hailed the cutting of the pipe as an “important milestone.” But even a best-scenario promises further grave damage. A detailed computer modelling study indicates that oil from the spill might extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean in the coming weeks. The National Center for Atmospheric Research said once oil entered the “Loop Current,” part of the Gulf Stream which sweeps around the Florida panhandle, it would be only weeks before it reached Florida’s Atlantic shores. (BBC, June 3)
30 years of pelican protection shot to hell…
This story leads with a photo of a pelican so completely covered in oil that it looks like a piece of oily mud that his been shaped into the vague form of a pelican. From the LAT’s Greenspace blog:
Gulf oil leak may be bigger than BP says
From AP, June 9:
US confirms second Gulf spill
From CNBC, June 9:
Oil spill flow exceeds low end of government estimates
From International Business Times, June 9:
Gulf oil flow estimate revised upwards —again
From AP, June 10:
Gulf oil flow estimate revised upwards —again
From Yobie Benjamin‘s Hacking Capitalism blog on SFGate, June 15:
Oil company bullshit flow continues unabated
Boy, did The Onion ever get this one right. From the New York Times, June 16:
And it sounds like they got it. What a surprise.
100,000 barrels a day?
From BBC News, June 21:
BP “burning turtles alive”
From Raw Story, June 20:
BP stops oil gusher —for now
From Environment News Service, July 16:
Gee, that sounds reassuring.
Final kill of BP oil well within reach?
From Environment News Service, Aug. 4:
The big majority “dispersed,” we assume.
Recall that the Exxon Valdez disaster dumped nearly 11 million gallons, or 250,000 barrels, into Prince William Sound.