The Beacon

Blog Tags: Gulf Of Mexico

Rory and Maeve McCracken - 2013 Ocean Hero Awards youth winners!

When we told Rory and Maeve McCracken that they had won our 2013 Ocean Hero Awards in the Youth category, they were excited, to say the least: “I could barely breathe, I couldn’t move. I was so happy and so shocked at the same time,” ten-year-old Maeve explained. “I couldn’t really comprehend it at first. To me it’s just a huge honor to be listed with everyone else, let alone to win,” said fourteen-year-old Rory. The competition was stiff, but after 300 nominees, a dozen accomplished finalists, and weeks of voting, Rory and Maeve’ work to save the Gulf of Mexico won the day.


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Mysterious Dolphin Deaths Mount in the Gulf

Map of marine mammal strandings in the Gulf of Mexico this year. Courtesy NOAA

For the past three years, whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico have been undergoing what the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is calling an “unusual mortality event”—that is, they have been stranding and dying off by the hundreds (817 in all), and no one knows why. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe provides a likely explanation, but, in fact, 114 marine mammals died in 2010 even before the devastation of the oil spill had even begun.

It could have something to do with a bacterial infection, known as brucellosis, revealed in some animal necropsies, or it could be related to environmental degradation, climate change, fishing activity, or the cumulative effects of all these combined stressors. Or, it could largely be a natural phenomenon merely exacerbated by anthropogenic impacts (though unlikely). It is truly a mystery.

What is less mysterious is the cause of death for three of the most recent dolphin victims. In the past six months, two bottlenose dolphins washed ashore, one in Louisiana and one in Mississippi, with gunshot wounds to their heads. In Alabama, another live dolphin was discovered stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Though it initially survived this brutality, the dolphin eventually succumbed to its injuries and died. NOAA is currently investigating these cases and asks anyone with any information to call their Office of Law Enforcement hotline at 1-800-853-1964. Penalties under the Marine Mammal Protection Act range up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation.

Learn more about the bottlenose dolphin and Oceana’s work in the Gulf of Mexico.


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Blowout Causes North Sea Gas Leak

Gas has been leaking into the United Kingdom’s North Sea for three days, after an attempt to close an underwater oil well caused a blowout.

Oil drilling accidents happen more often than you might think. Smaller spills and leaks don’t usually make the news, although they can still affect the local environment. And this is why offshore drilling is so dangerous—it’s even harder to contain a leak when it’s underwater.

In this case, there is not much that can be done for the time being. The actual well is plugged, but the highly-pressurized gas (a light crude oil called condensate) is coming from a reservoir close to the surface. It’s possible the leak might close itself within a few days. But if it doesn’t, the only way to resolve it will be to drill a relief well, which will take six months. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was eventually resolved.

The comparisons don’t end there. Jake Molloy, regional organizer for RMT union, also compared the two accidents: “It’s unprecedented. High pressure gas flowing from a well with no means of preventing it. We are in the realm of the unknown, comparable to the Deepwater Horizon.”

This leak will not have the same scope of destruction as the Gulf leak, since the condensate is thin and will hopefully evaporate. But after two days, there was already a sheen of condensate two miles long in the North Sea. A vapor cloud is visible rising from the rig, and the area has been evacuated out of fear of an explosion.

Accidents occur everywhere we drill, and there is no way to safeguard the environment from the effects of oil. Shell is currently on its way to begin drilling in the Arctic, far from civilization. If a spill occurs there, the story could be even worse. Join us in calling on President Obama to protect the Arctic environment and all the animals that call it home.


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Sick Dolphins in the Gulf

dolphin

© Oceana/Jesus Renedo

Sad news from the Gulf of Mexico: At least 32 dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the hardest hit spots by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have been given physicals and are reported as severely ill according to NOAA officials.

The dolphins are reporting a range of symptoms from being underweight, anemic, low blood sugar and liver and lung disease. One of the studied dolphins has already been found dead.

There has been a large surge in dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill, especially newborn and young dolphins. In 2011 there were 159 strandings just in Louisiana, almost 8 times the historical average in previous years.

The numbers of dolphin carcasses found is likely only a fraction of the total amount of dolphins that were killed by the oil, and the true number is likely 50 times the total of 600 strandings since the spill, so more than 30,000 dolphin mortalities may have been caused by the spill already.

The spike in young dolphin deaths since the spill is extremely concerning, and showed biologists that the health of dolphin populations in the Northern Gulf had been compromised and many miscarriages may have occurred following contact with oil pollution. 


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The Real Reason for High Gas Prices, Redux

Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Soledad Esnaola

Editor's note: This post by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless was originally posted last May on Politico.com. We think it couldn't be more relevant right now, especially considering that many media outlets are now making similar arguments to the one we've been making since last year - that gas prices aren't tied to offshore drilling.

Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?

Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in gasoline prices that are caused by major upheavals in the Middle East.

Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they argue for more offshore oil drilling is they think it will save money — especially since gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently. (See: A chart of U.S. gas prices here.)

This idea is not only intuitively appealing. It is repeatedly and unambiguously promoted by important government officials from both the Democratic and the Republican parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) defended legislation that would expand offshore oil drilling, saying “this bill would do more to lower gas prices at the pump than any other plan.” Meanwhile, Sarah Palin criticized President Barack Obama, saying, “His war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump.”

Former President George W. Bush, who had private-sector oil industry experience, said it could “take pressure off gasoline prices over time by expanding the amount of American-made oil and gasoline.” And Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, insists, “Gas prices are closing in on $4 per gallon … because of the de facto moratorium on drilling permits.”

Pundits, like Steve Doocy of Fox, endorse the argument, saying that the solution to rising gas prices is to “just poke a hole in the ground.”

Yet during the past two years, the amount of oil pumped in the U.S. has been going up, not down — as one might infer from all these comments. So this strongly stated argument to increase domestic oil drilling is wrong.

Examine the facts. The Energy Information Administration data show the price at the pump closely mirrors the international price of oil, not the percentage of oil coming from imports. (A chart comparing the U.S. gasoline prices and the percent of oil we import can be found here.)
 
Now, consider the price of unleaded gasoline at the pump compared with the international price of crude oil (See: A chart comparing U.S. gasoline prices and international crude oil prices here.)

Which do you think does a better job of explaining the changes in the price of gasoline at the pump? Your common-sense reading of the charts is correct. The price of gasoline at the pump is not statistically correlated with the share of U.S. consumption of imported oil, but it is highly correlated with the international price of imported crude.

This seemingly counterintuitive result is consistent with how the world’s oil markets actually operate. Ask yourself this question: When BP or any other big oil company finds oil in the Gulf of Mexico, does it sell it to us at a discount because we were kind enough to let them drill in America?

No, it doesn’t. It sells it all over the world at the price set in the international oil market. As an international commodity, oil is priced on an international basis — according to global supply and demand. Global demand is the reason the price is going up now. The world’s economies are recovering from the slump of the past few years and the developing economies, like China, are increasing their demand.

Meanwhile, offshore drilling is simply too risky for our beaches and fisheries. Want proof? Oil company shareholders insist on having a law limiting their liability in the event of a disaster.

I don’t think these risks are worth it. You might disagree. But if you do, remember: Anyone who tells you we should do offshore oil drilling to lower our price at the pump doesn’t care about the facts.


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Gulf Sea Turtles Still Not Safe

loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. © Oceana/Carlos Suarez

Over the past few months we’ve been reporting how sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico have been drowning in shrimp nets in appalling numbers.

Well, we have an update today – and the news is mixed. 

In response to the revelation this summer that hundreds of sea turtles were dying, the government has stepped up its enforcement effort. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between mid-April, the start of shrimping season, and late October, NOAA’s enforcement officers inspected more than 444 vessels to see if they were equipped with turtle escape hatches (also known as turtle excluder devices, or TEDs).

The verdict? 371 of the boats had TEDs in compliance with the law – leaving 73 of them either without TEDs or with the hatches tied shut or improperly installed.

While we’re happy to hear that NMFS is keeping up with TED enforcement efforts, these new numbers mean that only 83% of the boats are following the rules in place for the Gulf shrimp fishery to protect sea turtles from extinction. And that is simply not good enough.

Learn more about Oceana’s sea turtle campaign and stay tuned!


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Thursday Trivia: Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

kemp's ridley sea turtle

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

Starting today, we’ll be doing a weekly trivia feature of one of the fascinating species that lives in the oceans. Today’s animal is the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and most endangered species of sea turtle. These turtles are usually solitary and live primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, sometimes venturing up the Eastern Seaboard.

The relatively small range of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is one of the reasons its population has been declining. When population concentrations are high enough, females come onshore to lay their eggs arrive together in mass landings (the name of these landings is our weekly trivia question on Twitter, so answer now to win!) Eggs and hatchlings make easy prey for dogs, herons, and humans—and some cultures believe sea turtle eggs are aphrodisiacs.

Adult sea turtles are particularly at risk of drowning after being accidentally caught in the nets of shrimp trawlers and other fishermen. Adding turtle excluder devices to nets allow turtles to escape and have made a difference in turtle bycatch deaths, although these rates are still high. Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.

You can learn more about Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia and from the Encyclopedia of Life.


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CEO Note: Calling on President Obama and Congress to End Tax Breaks For Oil Companies

Last night in his speech before the joint session of Congress, President Obama asked this important question:

“Should we keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Or should we use that money to give small business owners a tax credit when they hire new workers?”  

The stakes are significant.  The multi-national oil companies receive more than $4 billion in tax breaks every year from the United States, according to The New York Times.

And of course international companies like Exxon, BP, and Shell spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists and political campaigns in the United States to ensure that they keep those American tax breaks.

Earlier this year, President Obama tried to reduce the tax breaks handed out to oil multinationals, but Congress refused to consider it in this spring’s budget talks.

And all the while, oil companies continued to spend some of their record profits on perpetrating the falsehood that Americans need them to keep drilling in the American ocean and the American Arctic in order to save us money at the pump.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. Increased domestic drilling will have little to no effect on your gas prices, because the price of oil is set on the international market. Surging international demand, or reductions in international production, has a much bigger effect on your gas prices than do slow and incremental changes in domestic production. 

Moreover, when we expand domestic drilling and allow hazardous actions like BP took last year in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, we take all the environmental risk at home, but share any oil finds with the international market. Does that seem smart to you?

The international oil companies want Americans to believe that if we let them drill enough, and give them big enough tax breaks, the American price of gas will drop. The facts show that’s not true.

Offering oil companies tax breaks in the hopes they’ll lower your gas price is like offering your teenager a bigger allowance in the hope they’ll take smaller portions at dinner.


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What if an Oil Spill Happened in the Arctic?

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.

This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.

These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then. Just watch this video of a failed cleanup test:


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The Real Reason for High Gas Prices

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana; this post also appeared on Politico.

Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?

Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in the price of a gallon of gas that are caused by the major upheavals in the Middle East. Look at this chart (data from the Energy Information Administration):

Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they are doing so is they think it will save them money – especially as gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently.

This idea is not only intuitively appealing, it is repeatedly, and unambiguously, promoted by important government officials from both parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La) defended new legislation that would expand offshore oil drilling, saying “this bill would do more to lower gas prices at the pump than any other plan.” Sarah Palin criticized President Barack Obama, “His war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump.”


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