The Beacon

Blog Tags: Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill

New Zealand Oil Spill Brings Reminders of Gulf Spill

little blue penguin

A little blue penguin covered in oil. © Jeremy Gray/Flickr

Matthew Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.

A cargo ship has wrecked on a reef off the coast of New Zealand and the oil spill and wreckage is being called the worst maritime environmental disaster in the country’s history.

Reminders of last year’s Gulf oil spill are playing out as oil is lapping up on some of New Zealand’s most popular beaches, and hazmat suit workers are attempting to clean it up. Graphic images are emerging of oil soaked penguins and birds washing up dead.

Videos show the cargo ship tilted at a severe angle and it is feared to be splitting in half. Several of the cargo containers hold hazardous materials that could ignite in flames when in contact with water. New Zealand’s emergency response team is having difficulties containing the spill and accessing the ship due to high seas and strong winds. 

During a college study abroad at the University of Auckland, I experienced the unspoiled beaches of New Zealand, and the little blue penguins that are now washing ashore dead. New Zealand’s respect for the coastlines and marine life has given them great protection and status in their country, so this is indeed a sad day for their citizens and all of us who appreciate the oceans. I hope that the political response in New Zealand to this disaster is better than what has happened so far in the United States, which is a whole lot of talk and no action.

Here in the U.S., Shell is pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean and making outrageous claims that they could clean up after an oil spill under even more extreme weather, seasonal darkness, sea ice, and no harbors. Previous spill cleanup drills in the Arctic have failed miserably. 

America still has a chance! Protect walruses and seals by helping us keep similar oil spills out of the Arctic Ocean.


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New Study: Gulf Spill Oil Threatens Fish Biology

A soapfish in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen

The first study showing the biological impacts to wildlife from last year’s Gulf oil spill has just been published in PNAS, and the news is not good for fish populations. 

After being exposed to low levels of heavily weathered crude oil in marsh habitats, killifish, also called bull minnows, showed cellular changes in their livers which could impact reproduction and health. Killifish are an important part of the Gulf of Mexico food web, and impacts to their populations could have ecosystem-wide results.

"The message that seafood is safe to eat doesn't necessarily mean that the animals are out of the woods," said Andrew Whitehead, an assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University and a lead researcher in the study.

These lesser-seen impacts to reproduction are predictive of more serious long-term threats to populations. In a way, these changes are even more tragic than the animals that washed up on the shore dead after the spill. The study found the same kind of cellular responses in killifish as were observed in herring, salmon and ducks that later had population crashes as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and some populations never recovered.    

The fish showed changes even when the water was seemingly clean and when there were very low levels of oil present. The researchers note that even when oil is not visible on the surface, the toxic components of the oil can remain in the sediment and get stirred up by waves and storms. 

"Where's the oil? It's in the sediment," Whitehead said.

He’s right. A couple of weeks ago Tropical Storm Lee unearthed miles of tar balls, tar mats and abandoned cleanup equipment left from last year's oil spill, forcing BP cleanup crews back to the beaches.

As the science of the spill is just beginning to unfold and BP continues to clean up oil on the beaches, Congress is pushing hard for more risky offshore drilling in the same affected ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, and new pristine environments like the Arctic where there is no capability to clean up after a spill.

Help us in the fight to stop offshore drilling. Sign the petition to Stop the Drill today if you haven't already!


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BP Pays Out – But What’s the Real Price of the Spill?

 After the Gulf oil spill happened, people demanded numbers. They wanted to know animal mortality numbers and dollar signs to understand the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.

The problem is that the extent of this spill was so huge and so many animals and people were affected that it’s hard to quantify. But some recent numbers help show how widespread the impacts have been.

So far BP has set aside $20 billion for spill impacts, and it has just been released that they paid out $5 billion of that amount in damages to over 200,000 people in the last year, with an additional $1.5 billion going to cleanup and restoration.

Many more people are claiming damages, with a total of close to 1 million claims being processed from people in all 50 states and 36 different nations, with thousands more claims coming in each week.

How could a spill in the Gulf possibly affect over a million people in such far reaching places? The answer is that the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just an oil and gas depot, it is used for many activities besides drilling that employ thousands of people in fishing and tourism related jobs. As a result, the economic impacts of the spill have been felt around the world.


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Video: Andy Sharpless at TEDxOilSpill

At last year’s TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington, D.C., Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless tackled the 10 biggest myths he hears about offshore drilling. His presentation is especially poignant this week considering the government's decision on Friday to re-open the Western Gulf of Mexico for new oil and gas exploration for the first time since the spill.

Check it out and pass it on!


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Less Than a Year After the Spill, Oil Leases Scheduled

oiled bird

It hasn’t yet been one year since the worst accidental oil spill in history was finally stopped, but the Interior Department announced Friday that it will open more than 20 million acres of the Western Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas exploration and development.   

Oceana’s senior campaign director Jackie Savitz’s responded to this outrageous news in the New York Times:

“Rushing this lease sale puts marine ecosystems at risk before the ink is even dry on the impacts of the BP spill,” said Jacqueline Savitz of the international conservation group Oceana. She added that the ocean energy bureau “appears to be caving to intense pressure from the oil industry to return to ‘business as usual,’ without regard for the extraordinary risks to already imperiled marine animals.” 

Reports following the Deepwater Horizon spill have highlighted the impacts on already struggling species, such as endangered sea turtles and bluefin tuna. Many commercially important fish were spawning at the time of the spill, and studies to measure the impacts have not yet been completed. Until the status of those populations is clarified, it’s impossible to determine the impacts of this lease sale, a step required prior to the sale. 

The Interior Department should not proceed with new lease sales until the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill are better understood, and until we improve our readiness to prevent and respond to major oil spills.


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CEO Note: The Arctic Still Isn’t Safe From Oil Spills

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.

Watch the video of the failed cleanup test here.

Furthermore, the Arctic is an incredibly harsh place. The Gulf of Mexico was surrounded by thousands of first-responders within a few hours’ travel, and it has year-round temperate weather. The nearest Coast Guard response facility is 1000 air miles from the Beaufort Sea. The Arctic is only a hospitable working environment for a few months in summer. Ice and weather could easily make rescue working conditions far too dangerous for crews, leaving a nearly-pristine ecosystem that is home to Inuit people destroyed during an uncapped oil spill.

We’ve won major victories against offshore drilling, especially last year when President Obama announced that the new five-year plan for offshore drilling removed thousands of miles of U.S. ocean from consideration, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

But the Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s plan shows that we still face an uphill battle, even when the facts show that increased drilling won’t reduce gas prices at the pump.

We have campaigners and scientists at work in Washington, D.C. as well as in Alaska who are closely monitoring the oil companies’ plans to drill in one of the last great ocean ecosystems. With your support, we hope to win more protections to keep our coasts safe from oil spills.


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Friday Infographic: Offshore Drilling

This is the third  in a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”  

Last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was not an isolated event. The exploding rig was especially tragic, but the truth is that the oil industry produces pollution every day, as today’s infographic illustrates:

Click to enlarge. [Infographic by Don Foley]

The small spills associated with oil extraction, transportation, and consumption add up to about 195 million gallons every year. That’s as much as one Deepwater Horizon gusher.

As we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, extracting oil from the seafloor is dangerous business. Everyday drilling and extracting result in chronic leaks that add up to 11 million gallons of oil pollution annually.

Transporting oil is also a major source of pollution. Sometimes ships intentionally discharge what’s known as oily ballast water—the thousands of gallons of dirty water used to keep a giant transport ship stable. Otherwise, despite their best attempts, moving oil around inevitably results in spills to the tune of 44 million gallons a year.


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Gulf Shrimpers to Blame for Record-High Sea Turtle Deaths

A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling in North Carolina. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

Sea turtles have had a rough year. In 2010, more than 600 sea turtles were found either dead or injured on Gulf of Mexico shores, and 563 have already washed up just halfway into 2011.

This sudden spike in sea turtle mortality is due in part to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf in April, but Oceana has recently discovered that someone else may be to blame: the Gulf shrimp fishery.

Oceana recently found that the fishery is not currently required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which spare most sea turtles from getting caught and drowning in their skimmer trawls used for catching shrimp. This lack of proper regulation, coupled with the fishery’s noncompliance or ignorance of TED requirements for other types of trawls, has led to the enormous number of recent sea turtle deaths.

What you might not know is that under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) authorizes fisheries to injure or kill a specific number of sea turtles. More than 98 percent of all sea turtle interactions authorized to U.S. fisheries are given to the shrimp fishery.


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New Google Tool Reveals Oil Spill Amnesia

deepwater horizon explosion

Just one year ago in early June 2010, tar balls began washing up on the beaches of Pensacola, Florida, and oily waves lapped the shores of the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore. Graphic images of oil- covered cormorants and pelicans emerged in the news.

Over one-third of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were closed to fishing and BP released the first video clips of a hole the size of a dinner plate gushing crude oil into the deep dark waters of the Gulf. But one year later a different disaster of great magnitude has occurred -- the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history has largely been forgotten. 

A phenomenon deemed “oil spill amnesia” has been uncovered after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to greatly expand offshore oil drilling in federal waters with less safety provisions than before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This made it obvious that many of our politicians had forgotten about the risks of offshore drilling, but how much the general public and media has forgotten about the Gulf oil spill was speculative, until now.

Google has come out with a new tool that is perfect for data nerds called Google Correlate. It can relate two different search terms or phrases and show their correlation in terms of internet search activity. Based on search activity Google has been able to accurately predict rates of flu, and these tools may serve great importance in our society.

It has also revealed that people have indeed largely forgotten about the impacts of the BP oil spill.


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Ocean Hero Finalists: Carter and Olivia Ries

This is the seventh in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

I’ve spent the last week telling you about our adult Ocean Hero finalists, and now it’s time to spotlight the younger set -- our inspiring junior finalists.

First up are 10-year-old Carter and 8-year-old Olivia Ries, who have been involved in saving the planet for an impressive portion of their young lives. In late 2009 they started their own nonprofit organization “One More Generation” (OMG), whose goal is to raise awareness about endangered species around the world.

In 2010, OMG created the following video:


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