In September, a federal judge found BP’s negligent and reckless behavior to be at fault for the 2010 BP oil spill, which killed 11 people and spewed over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP could now have to pay up to $18 billion in civil penalty fines under the Clean Water Act, as these civil penalties can amount to $4,300 per barrel spilled when "gross negligence or willful misconduct” is found, according to court documents.
Despite whatever sum BP may have to pay for the spill, studies are emerging that showcase the spill’s widespread impacts on Gulf wildlife. Recent studies, for example, have uncovered that tuna and amberjack embryos sampled near the spill developed heart and other deformities, and dolphins showed major signs of sickness including weight loss and lung damage. Additionally, many fishermen’s catches have still not recovered over four years since the spill. And even as these effects become understood, the long-term effects of the spill are still largely unknown.
The spill’s impact on birds, for example, has recently just started emerging. A soon-to-be-published paper, co-authored by former Oceana scientist Dr. Jeffrey Short, estimates that an alarming 600,000 to 800,000 birds died as a result of direct exposure to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At the time, nobody realized just how many birds died from direct oiling because the majority of them decomposed and sank offshore. The study says wind and currents kept many birds from washing up onshore – leading to a staggeringly higher estimate than the original 3,000 dead bird count, a New York Times article explains.
BP responded to this specific New York Times article, “Still Counting Gulf Spill’s Dead Birds,” with a statement criticizing the study’s research methods and findings. “The results of the models used in this paper are based on general assumptions by the authors,” BP said. “While Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) studies are ongoing, analysis of field observations conducted to date indicate that population and nesting impacts from the spill on birds were limited.” BP and the federal government have yet to publicly release their own studies.
“It is not surprising that the world’s largest marine oil spill disaster had a devastating impact on seabirds,” says Oceana senior scientist Dr. Chris Krenz “However, the mortality of so many birds is still overwhelming and is likely to have subsequently affected other parts of the ecosystem.”
Additionally, both the study and BP’s response highlight the implications of drilling in remote areas. If Gulf responders only recovered 3,000 birds when an estimated 800,000 died, what could happen in the remote and volatile Arctic? The U.S. Arctic is home to some of the largest seabird colonies in the world and is known for dense aggregations of seabirds at sea. A very large oil spill in this region is likely to have devastating ecosystem-wide impacts.
Dr. Krenz highlighted the implications for assessing oil spill impacts in the Arctic: “In the Arctic impacts from an oil spill are likely to be out of sight, because it will be difficult to impossible to adequately survey these remote areas, much less clean up the spill. In hopes for lower fines, those that spill the oil are likely to hope what is out of sight is out of mind when it comes to assessing oil spill damages. Unfortunately, the remote Arctic is a region that is ripe for debates about oil spill impacts.”
This past August, Royal Dutch Shell filed plans with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to explore oil and gas wells in the U.S. Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, which could potentially open up the region to drilling as early as 2015. This plan comes after Shell abandoned plans to drill in the Arctic in 2013 and 2014 following a disastrous attempt in 2012 including kissing the shore with one rig, the Discoverer, and catastrophically grounding the other, the Kulluk, on a remote island near Kodiak, Alaska. Despite lacking proper oil response protocols, BOEM is also moving forward with plans for oil and gas lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2016 and 2017.
In the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, where other oil companies in addition to Shell have expressed interest to drill, a spill could be catastrophic. Not only would an industrial disaster threaten the livelihood of Arctic inhabitants and marine species, it would be impossible to clean up. The Arctic is no stranger to freezing temperatures, unpredictable wind patterns, and rough waters, and it remains largely inaccessible due to its limited infrastructure. The closest U.S. Coast Guard air base capable of responding to an oil spill is located nearly 1,000 miles away.
Undoubtedly, a spill in the hard-to-access region could disrupt marine food webs and productive Arctic ecosystems for decades to come. Indeed, it’s been just over 25 years since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and many species, like herring and pigeon guillemots, have not recovered. The bottom line is that the Arctic Ocean cannot afford a similar oil spill.
But if another one occurred – from offshore oil drilling or a shipping accident – would we ever understand the impacts? If a spill occurred, the chances that responders would be available to recover all oiled marine life scattered across the region’s expansive and remote coastline at a rate even comparable to the respondents of Deepwater Horizon is low. Efficient and timely disaster relief becomes even more difficult in such a harsh and remote environment with little infrastructure—allowing many animal casualties and environmental effects to go undocumented.
Oceana was a leader in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and worked to assess long-term damage, advocated for stronger legislation, and informed the public on its impacts. Oceana is opposed to irresponsible offshore drilling, such as the currently proposed exploration drilling in the Arctic.
Oceana’s office in Juneau is working to combat a range of threats facing the Arctic, including climate change, industrial fishing, shipping, pollution, and oil and gas exploration and development. Much work remains to be done, and Oceana is calling on the Department of the Interior to rethink its management of Arctic resources. Click here to learn more about Oceana’s work in the Arctic, and you can also sign a petition here to tell the Obama Administration to protect Arctic ecosystems.