Gulf Spill Rollercoaster

by Justin

In the past few days as BP launched its ‘Top Kill’ plan to plug up the oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the news has reversed from high hopes in the morning to despair again at sunset. Both BP engineers and officials on the scene get optimistic about the chances for success, issue reports to that effect, and then eat their words. I don’t have a sense of the science involved so these errors in judgment may be excusable, maybe all signs did point toward success early on. But seriously, why not hold out for some concrete news on the efficacy on your mud? I can’t imagine how frustrating those reversals are to the people along the Gulf coast whose livelihoods are immediately effected.

The latest accounts from the Times distilled the week’s desperate attempts pretty well:

The failure of the top kill procedure, which was thought to be the company’s best option for stopping the leak, was announced after about 30,000 barrels of mud was injected into the well and three attempts were made at what is termed the “junk shot,” a procedure that involves pumping odds and ends like plastic cubes, knotted rope, and golf balls into the blowout preventer, the five-story safety device atop the well.

That’s right, golf balls. Now it’s back to the drawing board, with further plans that will likely prove difficult and untested because no one ever considered that hey, one mile below the surface things are a little tricky.

In the flurry of news that the worst is over on top of news that the flow is much worse than previously estimated (initial guess of 5000 barrels per day has risen to 12000-19000), I’ve come to wonder just how bad this thing could get. I wonder about the worst-case scenario. Fortunately, much smarter people with great expertise are wondering the same thing.

It’s already worse than Exxon-Valdez in terms of quantity of crude pumped into the ocean and there’s no end in the immediate future. The slayers over at the University of South Florida built a current simulation module to predict the way the oil will move over the next few days. What’s fascinating and terrifying is watching not only the way it slips into the Gulf Loop closer to shore and spirals, but to look at how close the plume is to the currents that travel out of the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic.

The accounts are too varied and the estimates all too imprecise for me to get a comprehensive breakdown of the devastation. And the deeper I go down that well the more terrible it becomes. What I’m now choosing to focus on are the tangible effects on wildlife. The economy of the Gulf states will be devastated as tourism takes a blow and commercial fishermen become jobless (75% of the country’s shrimp are caught in the Gulf) and the damage will spread across the US. But this passage from the Washington Post hits where it hurts:

Robert J. Barham, head of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said he had seen dozens of oily pelicans on remote islands. Some were trying in vain to get oil off their wings. They may have touched the oil while diving for food. “They think this is water sticking to their wings, but it’s not, and they can’t get it off,” Barham said. “It’s heart-wrenching, when you grow up in Louisiana and you are in love with this part of the world. . . . It just is a blow in the pit of your stomach.”

On Isle Grand Terre, LSU researcher Richard Gibbons saw a black-bellied plover, a skinny-legged shorebird, with oil on its face. He said the bird had no way to clean the oil off — its only tool is its beak — and instead was plunging its face into a shallow depression full of water.

“It was just repeatedly, you know, dipping its head into the water,” Gibbons said. “I was like, oh man, this is bad.”

The Audobon Magazine ran a heartbreaker about sea turtles that hints at the effects of just breathing in and contacting tiny contaminants. I read something a while back about the phase breakdowns of crude oil, and how a significant part of it thins into something effectively invisible that then travels much farther and much faster than the heavier black filth. This is the stuff that gets consumed by plankton and other microscopic lifeforms and then climbs the food chain. The effects of this invasive element won’t be fully realized for years. That, of course, is the terror and wonder of the ecosystem and the codependence of its members. There’s a slideshow of animals likely to be devastated by the spill over at the Environmental Defense Fund’s website, which is worth looking at to put a face on the lives at risk.

Cross your fingers, pray to your gods, write your politicians and hope that the death toll and gross devastation transform into the great and long overdue change in energy policy the world needs.

Side note: Macondo? That’s the name of the well? The mythical home to Jose Arcadio Buendia and his impossible family?