[GRN] Op-Ed: Warnings from the Gulf

Op-Ed published on March 28, 2015 in The Virginian-Pilot by Cynthia Sarthou, Exec. Director at Gulf Restoration Network

When the Obama administration announced it would open the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil drilling in January, references to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill began almost immediately. While Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell asserted the government had “learned from the challenges” of the 2010 disaster, those alarmed by the decision to open the Atlantic reminded the public of the effects of the Gulf spill.

Above: Oil sheen coming from an offshore platform on April 11, 2014 in the Gulf of Mexico.      Credit: Jonathan Henderson, Gulf Restoration Network/ Flight provided by SouthWings


As executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, I know all too well the devastation a massive offshore oil spill can cause to coastal environments and communities. The aftereffects of the BP spill have been well documented. Almost a mile of Louisiana’s coast is still considered heavily oiled five years after the disaster. Our dolphins are dying, tar mats as big as 2,000 pounds are affecting beach communities 100 miles away, and lucrative coastal industries lost millions of dollars and continue to struggle today.

But I’ve also come to understand that few pay attention to the consequences of offshore drilling when there’s no catastrophe involved. In the debate over offshore drilling in the Atlantic, few have spoken to the results when everything goes right. As horrific as the BP spill was, it is only the largest in a line of insults inflicted on Louisiana and the Gulf by the oil and gas industry.

The reality is that there are constant consequences from the industrialization of the Gulf coast, as well as routine ecological harm. Every time I fly over the coastline, I can see the smaller spills that happen almost daily from oil rigs. In the 15 years I’ve worked with Gulf environments, I’ve witnessed the slow erosion of coastline from drilling infrastructure.

While people on the Atlantic should be worried about a major catastrophe like the BP spill, the effects of drilling will be felt even if everything proceeds according to the oil and gas industry’s plans. Residents of the Atlantic coast should likewise be aware of the industry’s terrible track record of cleanup and safety procedures.

Take Louisiana’s famous wetlands. Much like the complex barrier islands and marshes off the Atlantic coast, Louisiana’s wetlands provide storm protection and are home to a wealth of wildlife.

However, Louisiana is now facing a coastal wetlands crisis – losing a football field’s worth of wetlands every 45 minutes.

Studies link much of the loss to construction and operation of navigation, drilling, and pipeline canals. The state estimates that it will take $50 billion to restore our wetlands to the condition needed to sustain our coastal communities. Our share of oil and gas revenues – which begins in earnest in 2017 – won’t come close to paying this cost.

Meanwhile, ocean rigs spill small amounts of oil on a daily basis.

The Coast Guard’s National Response Center receives around 1,500 oil spill notifications for Louisiana each year, with an average volume of 330,000 gallons spilled per year. While this number is nowhere near the 200 million gallons spilled in 2010, these frequent daily spills add up to significant environmental damage.

One well 11 miles off Louisiana’s coast has been leaking since 2004, creating a constant rainbow slick that stretches across the water for at least 10 to 15 miles. Nothing that the industry or government has attempted over the last 10 years has been successful in stemming the flow. Even without mistakes from the oil companies themselves, rigs can pose a danger: 115 oil and gas platforms were destroyed and another 52 damaged in hurricanes Katrina and Rita, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.

Sadly, despite all of this the federal and state governments have done very little, even after the BP disaster, to make the oil and gas industry safer and more protective of the environment.

Few, if any, of the changes suggested by the president’s Oil Spill Commission were ever implemented and little, if anything, has been done to improve the industry’s ability to respond to oil spills or other environmental hazards. Despite Secretary Jewell’s assertion that the DOI and oil industry have learned from the Deepwater spill, current policy does not reflect lessons learned.

I’m not telling the residents of the Atlantic Coast what’s best for them. Citizens living and working on the Atlantic Coast have a right to decide for themselves if they want to allow drilling off their shores.

I do think it’s important for people along the Atlantic Coast to hear about our experience in the Gulf, even before the catastrophic BP disaster. If oil and gas industry officials ask if you want their development, you might ask them about the many effects, both on land and at sea, that your community may face. Is it really worth the risk?

Cynthia Sarthou is executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, www.healthygulf.org.