by Justin

The federal government finally sprang into action to address the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Preliminary estimates fell well short of how rapidly the oil is spreading and recent projections suggest it will make landfall on Friday afternoon. All that elevated the crisis from one of probable ecological disaster to a certain threat against Louisiana’s natural resources – cue Homeland Security and the EPA to kick things up a notch.

First off, spill is inaccurate. In the sense that the oil was intended for a specific container and ended up missing that target completely, sure. But spill tends to mean from one container to another – implying that there’s a finite amount in the source spiller. What’s happening right now is more like an oil hemorrhage. The British Petroleum oil rig, poetically named Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank into the Gulf last week. The hole drilled into the ocean floor and the fractured bits of pipeline remain in place, however, and the earth is vomiting out oil without regard for the absent rig. The oil’s forming something like an upside down teardrop ballooning toward the surface, at which point it creates a massive slick of varying density across the surface. Crude oil, so I’ve read, is much closer to roof tar in consistency than it is to gasoline and luckily the most of the current output isn’t crude (like Exxon-Valdez spill of yesteryear).

So this sludge is billowing out at a rate of some 5000 barrels a day – that being the latest estimate that shattered all previous projections for size and effect. As of this morning roughly 2000 square miles (that’s a little bigger than the state of Delaware)  offer a sheen ranging from rainbow to burnt copper to tar black. Initially, back when recovery plans involved unleashing a 250 ton valve onto the hole to stop the flow, the fears for wildlife revolved around plankton and other smaller organisms – which, of course, would eventually affect larger animals. But the economic and ecological ramifications stayed the White House’s hands until the more delicate shoreline ecosystems were jeopardized. The New York Times offered this excellent diagram of the slick, highlighting local marine life in jeopardy.

As the underwater robots (no joke) failed to plug the hole and the prospect of drilling relief wells (creating more controllable holes that lessen the volume directed at Deepwater Horizon) offered a solution months away, The Coast Guard and BP decided on fire. Theatrically, giant swathes of ocean water burning sounds really awesome – in practice I’m sure it’s more terrible than anything else. So the plan was to corral the denser oil and burn it, which leaves behind delicious little lumps of sludge that can later be skimmed off. The controlled inferno proved largely ineffective (though I think it’s still on the table) because of tall waves and unanticipated shifts in the wind. That coupled with a hemorrhaging rate five times initial estimates and people start to take it seriously. The word from the New York Times is that local organizations in the Mississippi Delta are going so far as to fire cannons to scare birds away from areas most likely to be struck by oil.

I started to write about this yesterday and spent some time hunting for some heartbreaking and arresting images of the oil spreading or burning and came up with nothing. In 24 hours that’s changed considerably, with the NY Times website offering a stunning slideshow on its main page. The next few days will be interesting. And the next few weeks to see what sorts of political fallout emerge.

Interestingly, some environmental groups are calling for an immediate moratorium on offshore drilling. The shock isn’t that reaction, it’s that they’re leveraging this disaster and its clumsy clean-up against similar possibilities in the Arctic. Evidently the cold and the prevalence of ice would make all the current efforts in the Gulf either impossible or at least much more difficult. The distance to highly developed ports alone throws logistics into hell. They’re right. The Gulf is terrible, sure, but this would hit the frozen seas much harder. If the White House only took firm action when America’s coasts became endangered, how long would they twiddle their thumbs if it’s only the unoccupied and inhospitable Arctic in peril?

Also the recent deaths associated with fossil fuels may be worth listening to. 29 West Virginians died in a mining explosion, 38 Chinese were trapped and drowned in a flooded mine, and this threw 11 (missing and presumed dead) into the tally. The legacy of deaths gets denser and more intense the further back you go (2600 mining deaths in China in 2009), but the latest flurry in the headlines is striking. You just can’t make it safe for the people working. I like to believe that the planet’s protecting itself and pointing out the obvious: if it’s that hard to get and that toxic, you shouldn’t go after it.