Yes, BP Did Damage the Gulf
n an opinion article published Tuesday, the oil giant BP would have us believe that the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster wasn’t all that bad for the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, company spokesman Geoff Morrell admits the event was a tragedy, and that, sadly, both people and wildlife perished. But he hastens to point out that the disaster’s impact was not as dire as predicted, and that recovery is already happening or perhaps complete.
But those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. We know that marine ecosystems affected by oil spills much smaller than the BP oil disaster, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, take decades to recover. And with only four and half years behind us since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, we see a steady drumbeat of peer-reviewed articles documenting evidence of harm. The full effects of 210 million gallons of oil on the Gulf cannot be easily dismissed, especially when the injury studies BP conveniently cites are not yet available to the public. A deep dive into the real evidence of the BP oil disaster reveals several holes in Morrell’s story.
1. 210 million gallons of oil did not just disappear
BP thinks the massive amount of oil from a disaster like Exxon Valdez is comparable to the oil released from natural seeps in the Gulf seafloor. The hard truth, as deep-sea researcher Dr. Samantha Joye points out, is that the Gulf seafloor releases about 0.04 million gallons of oil and gas a day through tiny cracks all over the Gulf of Mexico. BP, on the other hand, released 2.5 million gallons of oil every day for 87 days, in a concentrated area of the Gulf. Dr. Joye’s research shows that microbes were not equipped to digest a significant portion of the gas released into the Gulf.
2. Oil travels far in the ocean.
BP must have missed this critical study by researchers at the University of South Florida, who predicted and later confirmed that BP oil, swept up by underwater currents, was found across the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Tampa, Florida. According to scientists, the oil that landed on the West Florida shelf, which extends miles into the Gulf, is likely to stay there a long time.
3. Impacts to wildlife go beyond the surface.
It is short-sighted to say that the impacts are short-lived and localized. Several studies have documented injury to the animals and habitats of the deep sea, and in all of these studies the authors point out that change is slow at the bottom of the Gulf. Because species like deep-water corals grow very slowly, it could take decades for them to fully recover from the damage caused by BP. Additionally, numerous species of birds, fish and even seaweed affected by the BP disaster travel in and out of the Gulf of Mexico, causing the spill’s footprint to extend well beyond the Gulf into other parts of North America and the Atlantic Ocean.
4. A big disaster merits a big response effort.
BP is quick to remind us of their “unprecedented response” to the oil disaster. Let’s not forget, however, that the time and money spent cleaning up the oil was not an indication of BP’s generosity, but rather a testament of the unprecedented damage that BP’s oil inflicted on the Gulf.
Figuring out how and where BP damaged the Gulf is a tough task, and BP is far from being off the hook. The company still owes billions of dollars in fines and natural resource damages for the oil discharged and resulting harm to the Gulf, and it is too convenient and much too early for the company to declare the Gulf fully recovered. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that we need to monitor and research impacts for the long term, not just a few years, before we draw conclusions about what has or has not recovered.
Since this disaster began, my organization, Ocean Conservancy, has been tracking oil spill impacts, none of which has been “conjured up.” We would like to invite Geoff Morrell to sit down with us to discuss the scientific evidence of impacts from the BP oil disaster, as it seems he may be unaware of some important research. We look forward to the Gulf’s full restoration and hope BP will accept accountability for the spill—and will acknowledge the complete scientific evidence of the impact, not a few carefully selected data points.