BP’s gulf oil leak: environmental and economic consequences

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It seems, except for residents and businesses immediately affected along the Gulf Coast, the potential mid- to long-term environmental and economic consequences that will follow the BP Gulf Oil Gusher are being overlooked and under-reported as if they are some trivial matter. Perhaps this is because the most visual part of an oil spill is the harsh, immediate effects oil has on coastlines, mammals, larger fish, and birds. However, the effects of this spill will be and, currently are, far more extensive.

The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is very sensitive and eventually influences all ecosystems on Earth including those supporting human existence. The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension, towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic Ocean current. It originates in the Gulf of Mexico, exiting through the Straits of Florida, and follows along the Eastern American seaboard and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic. When coupled with the marine food chain future environmental and economic consequences could be dire.

For example, Phytoplankton uses sunlight to produce high-energy chemicals for metabolic energy. They are primary producers at the beginning of the marine food chain that feed others up the chain – from Zooplankton, smaller fish, larger fish, to people. Ocean water with a veneer of petroleum blocks out much of the light needed by Phytoplankton and also robs oxygen from the marine environment causing their death. Either path results in tragic consequences up the food chain, especially if enough of the bottom food chain is destroyed. And, if the oil is ingested by aquatic species, there are potential long-term effects in marine aquatics that could affect marine-life regeneration and long-term sustainability that may not be seen for several years or even decades.

Other effects of the leak include offshore, tidal, and inter-tidal areas of the Gulf Coast that face inevitable contamination as the oil continues to spew. There is no evidence yet that the oil has made its way into the Gulf Stream or ‘loop’ current, although ‘tar balls’ have been discovered in Key West, near the Straits of Florida. If this is true, the oil eventually will kill the coral reefs in Florida and travel as far north as the Carolinas on the Eastern Seaboard or even further, with the potential to move across the Atlantic in the direst circumstances. Hopefully, the Chesapeake Bay is resilient, because the oil and chemicals related to the leak likely will reach them.

To worsen matters, a tropical storm or hurricane will generally mix ocean surface waters to depths of about 50 m (160 ft). The oil will not stay mixed, but float to the surface – it will become highly dispersed and widely spread – perhaps from Mexico to Florida depending on storm size and number. Hurricanes or tropical storms will make it untenable for ships to stay on scene meaning they will need to pull out and let the oil spew before completing their tasks. Additionally, storms will push the oil farther inland into marshes and other areas. The storms also will lift the beneath surface oil plumes and drop oil along with rain-water – depositing a light coating of oil on flora and fauna, including lakes, ponds and streams. This will further compound effects and increase cascading failures.

Economically, last year the nearly 11-million residents of the Gulf Coast produced about 4% of U.S. GDP ($531 billion). The fishing, shrimp, and tourism industries are quickly dying and real-estate prices are collapsing. The leak has already caused substantial job loss and loss of traditional livelihood (culturecide); there will be further catastrophic losses of jobs, business closures, declining real-estate prices, drastically reduced Gulf tourism – the list goes on. These effects will cascade continentally, if not globally. The Gulf Coast is responsible for about 10 percent of the U.S. market. Already oyster prices in the region have doubled. What’s next?

More crucially, we haven’t even addressed future health problems to humans and other land dwelling animals. What will happen if this oil leak is not stopped? How far reaching are the potential impacts? How much more damage will come?

The leak, continuing to spew with no end in sight due to haphazard solutions, could eventually affect 15-20 percent of the U.S. economy and spark significant foreign relations problems. A partial containment will not circumvent nor mitigate the impending cascading failures, even if the leak were stopped today!

The impending cascading failures and economic consequences of this environmental disaster are in the infancy stage – just beginning. Allowing the oil outflow to continue further will only greatly worsen this disaster.

Dr. Tindall is co-founder of the Tinmore Institute, a think tank that develops solutions for extremely complex problems around the globe.