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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Gulf leak is over, impacts still uncertain

    The leak that dominated the news for weeks, felled a CEO, made matters worse for an already embattled president and disrupted commerce and recreation along the U.S. Gulf Coast, was declared permanently sealed Sunday.

    Talk about anticlimactic.

    In practical terms, oil had stopped streaming from the BP well in mid-July, when a temporary custom cap finally succeeded in blocking the flow after so many earlier failures. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, named as federal spill response chief by President Obama, said cement injected atop and around the drill hole 18,000 feet below the ocean surface sealed it for good.

    Unfortunately, 205.8 million gallons of oil spewed into the sea before the capping.

    In many ways, the disaster did not appear to turn out as badly as feared. While 110 miles of beaches were affected to varying degrees, the massive and relentless lapping of oil on the shoreline, as had been seen in the Exxon Valdez spill, did not materialize. Warm temperatures and carbon-munching microbes in the Gulf encourage evaporation and depletion of the oil. And the spill response, as haphazard and controversial is it appeared at times, was unprecedented in scope and did play a role in limiting damage.

    Perhaps the Gulf will recover faster than expected, the shrimpers will return to their trade and the tourists to the beaches. But the nagging question remains: Where did all that oil go and what will its longer-term effects be?

    The Obama administration is undertaking what appears to be a comprehensive approach to determining where the oil did go, how much remains and what are both the immediate and long-term impacts. Done right, this will allow the development of a plan to continue monitoring the health of the Gulf waters and its marine life. This sensible and scientific approach followed earlier missteps in which the administration seemed overly eager to celebrate preliminary results suggesting much of the spill had dissipated.

    Directing the study will be Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the NOAA administrator. Along with federal scientists, private research organizations, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will take part, as will researchers from universities in the Gulf states. BP will finance the work.

    Critical to the study will be a comprehensive search for oil, down to the microscopic level, from the surface, through the water column, to the seafloor. Sea animals and vegetation will be analyzed to determine how the oil - and the chemical dispersants used to break it up - may have interfered with the ecosystem.

    This incident began with tragedy, an oil platform explosion that left 11 men dead. It exposed the lax quality controls of BP and its partners and showed a management environment that encouraged cutting corners to save time and money.

    Sharing in the blame was a failed regulatory system, with too few inspectors who were too chummy with the industry. The Obama administration must assure the rule-breaking ends.

    Finally, the disaster reminded all of the price to be paid for the nation's energy gluttony. For now, continued offshore exploration of oil and natural gas remains vital to meeting domestic needs, but this nation and its citizens must aggressively pursue conservation and renewable fuel options. The BP disaster is a reminder that the nation needs to do much more than simply "drill, baby, drill."

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