April 22, 2011

One year ago on this date, not too long after the Department of the Interior exempted British Petroleum's Gulf of Mexico drilling from a detailed environmental impact study and then a detailed blowout plan, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing eleven men. The resulting oil spill turned out to be one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history.

Lives can never be recovered. Livelihoods in the Gulf have returned, uneasily. The oil may have been dispersed and the worst parts of a surface slick avoided using conventional oil leak technology, but it has not just gone away. At the cold temperatures deep in the Gulf of Mexico, it may not go away for a very, very long time.

Only an estimated 25% (or possibly even less) of the total oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at that time was actually removed through direct recovery, skimming, or burning. Virtually all the oil that was dispersed, dissolved, or evaporated -- well over three million barrels -- is still in the local environment.

Dispersed and dissolved oil persists in plumes and oily sediment permeating the Gulf floor for dozens of kilometres in all directions: affecting phytoplankton and other microscopic lifeforms that form the base of the Gulf of Mexico food web. Sea molluscs from the Gulf still contain both oil and dispersants. Oil still continues to wash ashore along the Gulf sands, thousands of kilograms at a time. Evaporated oil will be raining onto Gulf-adjacent lands for years -- perhaps decades -- to come.

Thousands of carcasses are slowly rotting in the Gulf. Perhaps one in fifty reached the shore. Seventeen dead baby dolphins washed ashore during January and February, the dolphin birthing months; with at least another 200 dead dolphins still out in the Gulf -- from the first three months of this year alone. (The rest of that research has been placed under a gag order due to criminal charges pending.) The rest are out of sight, out of mind: but not out of the ecosystem. They will slowly rot: and as they rot, they will pull oxygen out of the surrounding waters.

British Petroleum has settled some lawsuits out of court, and is still dealing with others. BP, in turn, is suing Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron, the manufacturer of the blowout preventer which failed.

A six-month deepwater drilling moratorium was overturned several months early by court order. Current unrest throughout the Arab world has virtually ensured that no one will move too hard to endanger 23.5% of domestic United States oil production. Safety regulations and planning are essentially what they were before. Deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has now returned to previous levels, less one rig and eleven lives.

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