Oil disasters show up the risks offshore
A world that seeks to source more and more oil and gas from deeper waters and more difficult and delicate locations also needs to factor into the equation the facts that we are also moving into territory where accidents are more likely, harder to respond to and have greater consequences.
“The Gulf of Mexico’s well-developed infrastructure and access to the most technologically advanced methods for responding to a spill offer the best possible set of circumstances for coping with such a disaster,” said WWF-US Vice-President for Arctic and Marine Policy William Eichbaum.
“Yet despite all these advantages, the crisis continues to worsen.”
It has been estimated that 400-600 species are potentially at risk as oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout begins to reach the US Louisiana coast at one of the worst times for migatory birds. The area is a vital wintering or resting spot for nearly three quarters of US waterfowl and now is the peak period of migrating and nesting, with the first chicks venturing into marsh ponds in the path of the oil.
The oil spill area is a major spawning area for the endangered Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, now also returning for their limited spawning season. Also under threat is one of the largest seafood industries in the United States, responsible for around half the US landings of wild shrimp and 40 per cent of its oysters, now also reproducing.
"The ecological and economic devastation now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder that offshore oil exploration and production is in fact deeply hazardous and we should think twice before opening up even more delicate and treacherous waters to development," said WWF International Director General James Leape.
Among recent indications on how the oil industry is failing to adopt a hope for the best but plan for the worst approach, WWF has detailed how environmental impact assessments and oil spill contingency plans for exploration drilling in the inhospitable Chukchi Sea off Alaska dismiss blowout risks as “insignificant” and declined to analyse potential impacts or plan responses.
Oil is highly toxic to the marine and coastal environment and its impacts on wildlife and can persist for decades. Oil can still be found and damaged is still being inflicted by the worst US marine oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Deep Horizon, estimated to be leaking around 5000 barrels of oil a day, is set to surpass the Exxon Valdez quantity of oil early this week.
In late 2009, WWF was involved in assessing the environmental risks and damage from the blowout of the Montara exploration well head in the Timor Sea.
Though less than one tenth the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster (an estimated 400 barrels a day, against the current 5000), and being located in much shallower seas (around 90 metres/300 ft as opposed to around 1500 metres/5000 ft) the leak still took four attempts and 73 days to plug.
Oil spread over 90,000 square kilometers of sea and reef and into Indonesian waters and the global conservation priority area of the Coral Triangle.
Like the Gulf, the Montara spill area contained whales and dolphins, tuna spawning areas, turtles and seabirds.
“Unfortunately I think the real toll on the wildlife will never be known,” said WWF-Australia Conservation Director Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who traveled by boat to the Timor Sea during the spill to overcome an official and company information vacuum.
“There just simply wasn't enough effort put into the monitoring to really get a sense of the full impact. But we think that there were thousands if not tens of thousands of marine creatures like sea birds, whales and dolphins that would have come in contact with that oil and would have been affected.”
Dr Llewellyn, a marine scientist also familiar with the Gulf of Mexico, said Louisiana’s coastal biological richness came from the complex mix of sandy barrier islands and muddy marshes.
“You can clean sand but you can’t clean mud,” she said. “If the oil gets into the mud the effects could be very long-lasting.”
Steve Ertel, Senior Director Media Relations, WWF-US, firstname.lastname@example.org , +1 202 460 4641
Dr Gilly Llewellyn, Conservation Director WWF-Australia, GLlewellyn@wwf.org.au,
Phil Dickie, WWF International News Editor, email@example.com, +41 79 703 1952