Unspectacular Oil Spills

 
Painting of the shell oil spill by Samm Newton
"release is acceptable" by Samm Newton

I should start this story with a hook. Something spectacular.
I could take a step back and remind you of the 140 million gallons of crude oil ‘released’ by Pemex into the Gulf in 1979. I could reiterate the devastating loss of human life and environmental suffering caused by Deepwater Horizon.

I could. But I'm not going to. It doesn’t tell the whole story. And, unless you live in one of the five Gulf states, or work for the petrochemical industry, these leading stories are eventually forgotten.

The truth about oil and gas in the Gulf can’t be understood through a few choice stories that make good headlines. The story of the Gulf is best told through the spills that happen every day; the ones that don’t make the front page or national news. Daily disappointments make it clear that governance in the Gulf is different. The Gulf  is a sacrifice zone for energy interests in the United States and abroad.

The Taylor oil spill has been leaking every day for fourteen years. It has released up to 4 million gallons of oil, and shows no signs of stopping. It continues. Every day.

In 2017 LLOG, a small oil company, had a deep pipeline leak of 392,700 gallons into the hunting grounds of endangered sperm whales. Does 392,700 gallons of oil sound like a large, unacceptable oil spill? It should. But it is also important to recognize that there are, on average, 330,000 gallons of crude oil released off the coast of Louisiana every year. Every year.

In 2016 Shell’s Glider Field had a similar leak, and recovery efforts were dismal. Shell spilled 88,200 gallons and rough weather mixed the oil in the water column preventing complete clean up efforts. In 2018, two years later, BSEE finally released its report on Shell’s deep leak, and their findings were damning.

Shell had known about the stressed pipeline since 2014, two years before the Glider Field incident, but failed to solve the problem. The two novice control officers responsible for shutting down the leak didn't recognize the signs. As novices, they should have had a third operator with them as a mentor. But, since Shell considered the third position optional, they left the young operators on their own. This is not surprising—Shell had recently fired approximately 700 local employees.

The relief crew that arrived in the morning was able to shut off the oil spill with the push of a button. The whole scenario was completely avoidable. If Shell had taken the everyday risks of offshore drilling seriously, if Shell hadn't dumped its own drilling mud on top of its wellhead, or if Shell had hired appropriate staff, this would not have happened.

After a lengthy legal settlement, Shell still “admits no liability,” even though they clearly exhibited poor decision making, risk management, and workplace training. However they could pay up to $3.9 million after a 30 day public comment period on the matter.

Maybe Shell’s 88,200 gallon ‘accident’ seems forgivable compared to BP’s 206 million gallons. But there are 2,100 oil and chemical spills reported to the Coast Guard in the Gulf every year. That’s an average of six pollution events a day that you’ve never heard of. That is millions upon millions of gallons and ‘accidents’ that are slowly and silently infiltrating one of our country’s most valuable oceans.

Deepwater leaks in pipelines are impossible to respond to, since most of the oil is absorbed by deteriorating remote pelagic and abyssal environments. Most of the oil from leaks like these hurt deep marine canyons, critical habitat for our most sensitive species, including the endangered Gulf sperm whale, giant squid,  and deep water corals.

We cannot continue this way. Deep water corals are found nearly everywhere that deep drilling occurs on the outer continental shelf and they are incredibly sensitive to these continuous environmental disruptions. In 2016, four juvenile sperm whales washed up on shores of the Gulf from Texas to Florida. Business as usual means that these top predators are disappearing from our ocean.

The creatures and habitats lost to the oil industry’s political influence offer a whole suite of services that make this planet livable for you. They regulate the climate, absorb and detoxify waste, capture and store carbon, provide habitat for the foundation of the marine food chain, cycle nutrients to support the fish we like to eat and the charismatic wildlife we like to view, they offer the technology behind the medicines we use to cure cancer and ease pain, and of course hold the fuel that feeds our carbon economy. All these processes are at work thousands of meters below the surface, yet are vanishing right in front of us.

Let’s learn from the past and start paying attention to right now. Let’s not wait for another big story. We must hold the oil and gas industry accountable everyday.

Call the US Coast Guard’s National Response Center if you witness any release of oil, chemicals, or other pollutants where you live or work.

Send an email to the Attorney General before August 11th. Tell them that Shell should pay to the fullest extent of the law for their gross negligence. They should be held accountable for inuring deep water corals and endangered species.

We stand to lose the hardest working resource on this planet—the open ocean. Not because of one or two spectacular explosions. Rather it is the steady and constant polluting events that that happen every day of every year. The unspectacular oil spills of our time.

The tragedy of the Gulf of Mexico is slow-moving and often invisible. Show them we are watching. Email the Attorney General and together we can take a stand.

Samm Newton is GRN's Oil and Gas Intern
 

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