Gulf Oil Spill – Size of Spill Not the Only Environmental Threat

By Erna Buffie
Jun 14, 2010

Scientists say that new estimates on the size of the Gulf oil spill could quadruple its environmental impact, but size may not be the biggest threat.

So much of what is happening in the Gulf is hidden, both by the vast space of the ocean and by policies limiting the access of journalists and scientists to the spill. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from speculating on the threat the oil spill may pose to the Gulf’s ocean environment.

The Gulf Oil Spill – Double the Oil Quadruple The Environmental Threat

If upper estimates of 40,000 barrels a day are correct then more than 100 million gallons of oil may be currently floating in the gulf as a result of the BP spill. And at a daily capture rate of 15 thousand barrels, that still leaves an additional 25,000 barrels of oil flowing into the ocean, each and every day.

But what worries scientists most is the fact that upper estimates continue to rise. On June 13, just a few days after revising their figures, the US government began pressuring BP to build the capacity to capture up to 50,000 barrels a day by mid-July, a number which seems to suggest that upper estimates may have risen yet again.

The figures are of concern to scientists, because doubling the amount of oil in the gulf may not simply double the threat to the environment. As Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M observed to AP reporters, an increase of that magnitude doesn’t have a linear effect. "It may, instead, have quadruple the consequences," he said.

So what, exactly will those consequences be? And do all scientist agree that the amount of oil in the gulf is a key indicator of its potential impact?

The Gulf Oil Spill – Speculating on the Environmental Impact

If previous spills are any indication then Christopher Reddy of The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute suggests that counting gallons may not be the best way to assess the potential impact of the BP spill. "Every spill is unpredictable," he observed to a Globe and Mail reporter. "Nature and oil don’t take directions well."

In fact scientists have pointed out that the biggest spill to date, Saddam Hussein’s dumping of 240-million gallons of oil into the Middle Eastern Gulf seems to have done little environmental damage, washing up onto Saudi beaches with minimal impact. The Exxon Valdez spill, on the other hand, released only 11 million gallons of oil, but its environmental impact lasted for more than a decade and continues to linger, largely because the oil washed up in areas that were havens for wildlife.

So what these spills seem to indicate is that much depends on the type of oil released and the habitat in which it’s released. The size of a spill or the volume of oil may only become a critical factor when major ocean habitats are in its path.

And scientists agree that there are at least two critical habitats threatened by the Deepwater Horizon spill, not only because of the oil, but also because of the unprecedented volume of toxic dispersants used to deal with the spill.

  • Coral Reefs: Studies have shown that crude oil, laced with dispersants, can eat away at corals in less than an hour. Deep sea, cold water corals form a critical habitat for many ocean creatures and some in the Gulf are now in the path of subsurface oil plumes mixed with dispersants. Shallow, warm water coral reefs off the coast of Florida also remain a concern.
  • Marshlands and Estuaries: In heavy concentrations, oil can kill the grasses and other vegetation which protect Gulf State coastlines and act as nurseries for many marine species, from birds and shrimp to fish. Most at risk are Louisiana marshlands which were already disappearing at an alarming rate, prior to the spill, due to engineering projects.


Sheila McNulty "BP Pressured to capture 50,000 B/D" The Financial Times June 12, 2010

S. Webber and S. Bornenstein "Experts: Gulf Oil Spill May Exceed 100 Million" AP June 11, 2010

Barrie McKenna "How the Gushing Oil in the Gulf may Ripple Around the World," The Toronto Globe and Mail, June 5, 2010

P. Aldous, P. McKenna and C. Stier "Gulf Leak: Biggest Spill May Not Be Biggest Disaster," New Scientist June 11, 2010

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