Five Years After the Deepwater Horizon, Are Gulf States Prepared for the Next Oil Disaster?
Critical tools needed for response are still lacking, ocean experts say
Newswise — It has been five years since the worst man-made environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico occurred. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig left 11 men dead and spilled more than 200 million gallons of oil into one of the world's most productive bodies of water. Right now, some of the world's best researchers are leading scientific studies looking at the after-effects of the spill, its long-term impacts on the Gulf ecosystem and even developing restoration projects designed to improve the Gulf and its coastal habitats. But are Gulf states better prepared for the next disaster? "Billions of dollars are being spent to study the impacts the spill had on the environment and to help restore what was damaged or lost. These studies are all very necessary and crucial for the Gulf ecosystem," said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System-Regional Association (GCOOS-RA). "But with the current level of oil and gas production in the Gulf, and more leases expected in the future in the U.S. and in Mexico, we still don't have the tools in place that will allow us to adequately respond to another spill."
That's why the GCOOS-RA and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA) are calling for new and sustained funding for the operation of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and the major expansion of the high frequency radar (HFR) system in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Southeastern Atlantic coast. The consortiums -- which include academia, private enterprise and governmental and non-governmental organizations -- say the information to be gained by the expansion of the HFR system is vital to protecting public health and safety, for protecting coastlines and for developing restoration programs in the wake of spills.
"We saw during Deepwater Horizon that HFR and AUVs were a cost-effective way to help pinpoint where oil was likely to be found in near real-time. These tools provide information about surface currents, wave heights and winds and a better picture of what's happening beneath the surface of the Gulf," said SECOORA's Executive Director Debra Hernandez. "Right now, there are significant gaps in our coverage both by HFR and in the number of AUVs in place that we can use in disaster response. That leaves our coastlines and coastal communities vulnerable when another spill occurs. We would be in a much better position to protect our economy, our habitats and our population if we had these tools in place. We also need an adequate network of offshore buoys to complement the information that AUVs and HFR provide. Understanding what is happening throughout the water column is the only way to adequately respond to spills." There are 937 active and producing oil and gas leases on more than 4.6 million acres in the Gulf region and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to open up new lease areas in the coming years. The Mexican government is also implementing new rules that will allow for oil and gas exploration in their waters. If they were their own country, the five U.S. Gulf states would rank seventh in global Gross Domestic Product. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic have the United States' highest density of energy activities and are home to 11 of the nation's top 20 U.S. ports by tonnage. With an estimated 50 percent of transported goods being hazardous materials, ports are vulnerable to contaminant spills. "The Gulf of Mexico is a treasure to our nation with cherished marine habitats and species," Kirkpatrick said. "It is also a national asset for its energy production and maritime operations. If another spill occurs, we will need to answer the same questions: Where is the oil? Where is it going? We have an opportunity now to develop a comprehensive observing system in the Gulf so that we are fully prepared to answer those questions and can quickly respond to protect our resources."
What is HFR?HFR is a system of transmitters and radio antenna receivers along coastlines or on oil platforms; they transmit radio signals that are relayed to the receivers after bouncing off the ocean's surface. The signals received are related to the speed and direction the currents are moving and by wave heights. Because the information comes in near-real time, it is vital for developing accurate, timely forecast models that are especially crucial during response efforts when lives, habitat and property are at risk from hurricanes and oil spills. There are 19 HFR stations in the Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic coast -- with no HFR coverage at all in Louisiana and Texas. A new plan developed by the GCOOS-RA and SECOORA calls for 105 stations along coastlines and in major ports. The cost to expand the system is estimated at $19.9 million, with an annual maintenance cost of about $1 million for the coastal HFR stations and $11.8 million to outfit the ports. What are AUVs?Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are also known as gliders. They are torpedo shaped, untethered instruments that use buoyancy to move up and down in the water column in a zig-zag pattern, taking in water to move down and expelling water to move up. They are equipped with radio and satellite transmitters that transmit data gathered on things like water temperature, salinity, water currents and other conditions that can reveal water quality and the effects of storms back to researchers in a laboratory. Gliders can be outfitted with various types of instruments to detect things like harmful algal blooms and oil or other contaminants. Sensors on these platforms were tremendously valuable in locating oil below the surface during the DWH spill and in subsequent tracking of its movement following the explosion.
Oil Spill Dollars at a GlanceAfter the spill, BP created a $500 million trust to fund the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to investigate the impacts of oil, dispersant, and mixed dispersant and oil on the ecosystems and coastal communities of the Gulf of Mexico. GoMRI is tasked with developing better methods for spill mitigation, oil and gas detection and characterization and remediation technologies. Federal agencies have also settled some claims with companies responsible for the spill (MOEX, BP, Transocean) totaling $5.9 billion. (Some claims/fines are still in litigation and the case remains ongoing.) That $5.9 billion has been allocated to:• The National Academy of Science, a private, nonprofit institution created by Congress in 1863 to provide independent advice to government on science and technology. NAS will receive $500 million over five years.• The Restore Act Restoration Trust Fund. Eighty percent of all civil and administrative penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon will be used to support restoration activities in each of the five Gulf states. $800 million has been committed to date, with litigation ongoing.• National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by Congress in 1984 to protect and restore fish and wildlife populations and habitats will receive $2.544 billion over five years.• Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is an account created by Congress to hold payments, penalties and taxes and to help pay the costs associated with future oil spills.• The North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, which supports wetlands conservation projects. It will receive $100 million over five years to benefit restoration for migratory birds and other species.Of those dollars, only the Restore Act Trust Fund has designated dollars specifically for long-term research and monitoring of Gulf ecosystems and fisheries -- a potential funding source for AUVs and HFR. That long-term funding is 2.5 percent of the total Restoration Fund dollars allocated. (At this time: $20 million of the total $800 million.)--Oil Spill Dollars at a glance source: "Gulf Coast Restoration & Recovery 101," the Environmental Law Institute's Ocean Program.