Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico: My Thoughts

A professor once told me that whether religious or not, each and every one of us has a geographical locality that we feel a deep and spiritual connection to. For some this may be a place of formal worship, such a cathedral, for others maybe their hometown. For me it is southern Louisiana, a place where one hundred describes both the temperature and the humidity and wetlands emit their signature scent. A place that drives others away beckons me. As a kid my first interactions with the oceans occurred on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Multiple daylong car trips delivered me to places like Biloxi, Mobile, Galveston, Corpus Christi, Pensacola, and of course Grand Isle. By no mistake, as an undergraduate I choose LUMCON marine laboratory in southern Louisiana to be the first place I experienced marine biological research. Yet, the exact area where I conducted mark and recapture studies on hermit crabs and intertidal snails is now covered in oil. Alarming is that not just the Gulf of Mexico, other areas likely representing someone else’s sacred place, Kenya, Singapore, Alaska, Great Barrier Reef, are also experiencing recent oil spills.

Being deeply moved by the events unfolding, I have been consumed with thinking about the oil spill and the Gulf of Mexico. Below are some thoughts.

Why the impact on the Gulf will be unseen, unpredictable, and unfathomable.

Given the complexity of the marine ecosystems, we are unlikely to predict or even detect the severe ecological shifts that will occur in the Gulf. Miriam and I have already discussed some of the first order impacts, but the long-term chain reaction is an unknown. The environmental impact we see now, thousands of dead fish and hundreds of dead birds, turtles, and cetaceans, is merely the most visible tip of an iceberg that represents the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

  1. Most of the marine ecosystem is not known. Millions of species in the Gulf of Mexico may not even be known to science. How can we know what will happen to species we don’t even know are there? For many of the species we do know the basics of their ecology, behavior, and physiology, which would allow us some predictive power about the consequences of the oil spill.
  2. These changes will not only occur in the next few years but decades to come. Reproductive rates in killer whales in 2006 were still half of what they were in 1988 before the Exxon Valdez spill.
  3. Demonstrated time and time again, removing one species from a complex marine food web will send reverberations through the entire community. Remove a predator from a system and the prey profits but the prey’s prey suffers. We know that these trophic cascades will occur but when and where is anybody’s guess. Trophic cascades represent only one specific interaction within a marine ecosystem. There are far more with equal complexity. Thus…
  4. Changes will occur in ways we cannot envision. The initial oil spill will likely generate a butterfly effect. Aftereffects will have aftereffects. Happenstance, like blue fin tuna migrating through the Gulf exactly the time of the oil spill, will be hard to predict and adds greater complexity to the system.

What when wrong and who is to blame?

Sheril Kirhsenbaum said it best. “No matter what took place and why it happened, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico belongs to all of us.” Our decisions both political and personal led to the oil spill. When we as a society chose to continue our reliance on fossil fuels at level far exceeding our population, we caused the oil spill. When we as individuals, chose to not carpool, use public transportation, and drive fuel hungry automobiles, we collectively caused the oil spill. We allowed government officials, acting in our behalf, to deregulate, bed, neglect, and often condone the oil industry.

We, all of us, allowed oil industry to rape and murder our oceans.

Can we bring good from bad?

Perhaps, if we act wisely enough, we can use this a moment to reflect on and change our path. In a decade, we can look back and say this is the point where everything changed. Below are some recommendations for our way forward.

  1. What we don’t need now is more politics. Everybody is losing despite party affiliation. Our polarization has inhibited progress. The time for disagreeing with the other side of the aisle, simply because they represent the other side, is over. We must stop government as an arena where winner takes all and we do battle for the spoils.
  2. If we can get government working better and we have to, we need more regulation and oversight. If the economic collapse and the oil spill taught us anything it is that a completely free market model does not work. A group left to themselves, with incentives on economic gain, cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. Even as the oil spill has occurred, BP continues to fight regulation in Canada.
  3. Anything in the deep sea is risky. We need to respect that if we choose to drill offshore, no matter how much we prepare, another oil spill could happen. Thus, we need to be serious about our moratorium on offshore drilling. Over the next 5-10 years, we need to phase all offshore and offshore production out.
  4. We need to greatly increase the gas tax. When the gas prices increased a few years ago in the U.S., sales of SUV’s plummeted, public transportation usage increased, and there was exploration of alternative energies and reduced consumption. Now a few years later, with decreases in gas prices, the opposite trend appears to be occurring. With the money from the gas tax, we would fund 1. Research and development of alternative energies, 2. Development and construction of national wide public transit systems, 3. No- and low-interest loan programs and tax rebates that rewarded people for moving to vehicles with greater fuel economies. 4. Programs targeting low-income families and small businesses providing even greater assistance to offset the gas tax.
  5. We need to develop an NSF sponsored National Center that brings scientists, engineers, sociologists, and economists together to specifically address energy concerns. As a director so an NSF synthesis center for evolution I have seen utility of this model in making large scientific gains. The center would support groups, providing the necessary IT, engineering, and logistical support, to meet and develop solutions. The topics the center would support would be community driven through a proposal system with the ultimate decision made by council of academics chosen from within and by the various academic fields. The focus would be on product generation, i.e. tangible results, not simply discussion. Products, in any form, would be open to the public that would drive future innovation.
Dr. M (1619 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





25 comments on “Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico: My Thoughts
  1. Funny how you failed to mention it was the environmentalists who forced this rig into deep deep waters making it difficult to repair. Most rigs are in shallow water and this same event on those would have been rectified quickly. I am amused at media such as you and most that are so quick to overlook the true facts and use an event like this for your own political views. Not to hold BP blameless, far from it, but please include all facts and do not conviniently overlook the original culprit, which is the environmentalists who pushed this rig into the deep waters.

    • Hello Pete,

      It is factually incorrect to say that environmentalists “forced” this rig into deep waters. Media Matters has a nice summary debunking this, but in short, a) according to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), there are 3,417 active platforms in shallow water (<1000 feet) and only 25 in deep water. and b) the reason that there was drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf is that there is a lot of oil there. See, for example, this MMS report that attributes the rise in deepwater drilling to “the development of new technologies reducing operational costs and risks, as well as the finding of reservoirs with high production wells.”

      There is certainly plenty of societal blame to go around – why are we all still so dependent on cheap oil? – but calling environmentalists “the original culprit” is completely false.

    • Environmentalists are to blame only by the incredibly circuitous logic of right-wing bloggers who have turned environmentalism into another distorted strawman in their transparent, selfish war against everything outside their narrow agenda.

  2. Thanks for writing this. Looks like you got a dead Gulf on your shores. That gulf was pretty dirty anyway. But now it is toasted. Homo sapiens is the most arrogant of species. The American Psychatric Society is now working on characterization of a mental illness that is marked by feelings of distress and despair about the environment. And no doubt they will come up with some medication. All that politicians see is the ballot box and dollars. We could think of it as Karma. I think of a dead sea. Fishes struggling to breathe with their gills covered with oil. They will die, obviously.
    Here I am sitting in Canada which is covered in forests. I went out for a drink on Friday at an outdoor patio, where the chairs and the tables were made of petroleum.
    Apparently this kind of stuff happens all the time in the Oceans. Just common place.
    We had a huge Gas Tax Rebate in Canada which was supposed to be used to decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In the Province I live in, it was used to make more roads. Politicians are insane, Capitalists are insane, they get a bit of indigestion and burp and all the sea creatures in the Gulf die. It is insane.

  3. The headlines indicate that we Floridians should be breathing a sigh of relief that the oil has not come to our shores…. very short sighted headlines!

    We have personally incurred financial loss due to an interested homebuyer so terrified of what lies ahead for our beautiful beaches he felt he just couldn’t risk a purchase. On a broader note, tourism is down, lives and livihoods are deeply effected. No headlines but plenty of destruction to observe well before the oil arrives.

  4. Why are they trying to save the well?
    They should be saving the environment.

    I have a concern about the BP oil leak problem.
    How can they get away with trying to save there well? All the damage they are doing to the environment is obscene. Someone should make them just plug the well with cement. The use of mud is for blowout protection when they are going to use the well for oil production. No one is talking about just plugging the well. That thing they are using is just to save the well not stop the leek. Can you ask the people in charge why?

  5. I continue to view a variety of medias about possible solutions. Some of these have been proven to work in other areas of the country with a notable success. Why are we waiting for any of these ideas to be implemented. Is BP “king”, as one wife stated, that no one can approach them with an acceptable solution? Is BP trying to play “king” as far as who and what is done? Meanwhile the cap is on and sending about half of the oil above to a waiting ship. The other half is adding to what is already there in our waters. With the wind currents and the “loop” the oil will reach the entire Gulf Coast, all of Florida and the eastern seaboard. I will probably not live long enough to see the long range impact this has had on our environment, our livlihood, and our economy. It is my children and grandchildren who will lose the most! I thank you Craig and Miriam for your updates and views.

  6. I have said this from the start. BP just wants to save the well, and their own investment. The couldn’t care any less about the US or the world for that matter. The bottom line is the Shareholders get their money. That is it!

  7. Nice to see a little understanding of the same picture I have been seeing.There might be hope.I loved the article,the only thing is you need to get the deaf blind consumer on board.I am not a scientist or philosopher by trade but I am in the heart and soul.

  8. I am wondering why BP has not done the simple fix of setting charges and collapsing the well in on itself so no more oil can escape. Everyone seems concerned with pumping off the leaking oil and the distruction of that oil. The simplest might be the best.

  9. true, but they want to use that well at a later date. This is the oil companies we are talking about. People including myself have to start using different energy options.

  10. The last reply was on June 7th, and today the spill continue. And some media said it is more than estimated before. BP needs to find a way to collapse the well to finish the leaking. Oil and dispersant will impact Florida, Bahamas, Cuba, and it will go up to European shores, and many many people will need to find a new way of living. IT IS URGENT!!!

  11. Hi
    To whom it may concern
    Could you please Email Me the Email Address to send Ideas to Clean Up the oil in the Gulf off Mexico

  12. When the top of the stack was wide open gushing,that was the time to work the well and clear any obstruction and get in the well with a packer to kill it.Even pumping sea water into it could help gain control,but could cause casing in a deep hole to collapse.What I see is a deliberate act of defiance to the safety and health of the entire population of the world that is currently effected or may be effected in the future by this event.I guess,the richest company on the planet,”BP”has become to big to fail!BP,I say you cannot have the rights to any relief wells.There is no excuse to stop the pursuit of getting in the well from the top and killing it.To pump solvents or dispersents into our waterways out of laxity and dereliction is inexcusable.I dont in any means believe a war of violence in retaliation should take place,but every scrap of debris and every drop of oil shall be cleaned up if it takes every penny British Petroleum has invested in this continent!The Pearl Harbor Grave Yard in the Gulf its not,for as many men did not die.Man-O-man,the man that gives orders from behind a desk.You can’t crack the wipe on progress by wire!Slow down.This is not some race.There is no need for profit.You ever here of public service.The planet belongs to everyone equally!

  13. Whistle while we walk,whistle while we are cold and wet walking.Pick up a block of wood and pretend its a cell phone.Stupid phones anyway,Bla bla bla.

  14. Apply peace and compassion in all endeavours.Be thoughtful,safe but courteous in pursuit of happiness and health.

  15. Yeah,A crack in the middle of the…earth!Crack stack,nick nack,patty wack,wack wack wack awack.

  16. how can i contact the people in charge of controlling the oil spill in the gulf.

  17. Guess what?? All the nuclear power plants along the gulf coast will be damaged also!! The oily water damages the safety equipment in place. NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THAT!!!!!!!!!!!

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