The crude oil belching out of the floor of the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 has formed giant plumes beneath the surface of the water.
That’s the latest nightmarish evidence that the gulf oil catastrophe, among the worst ecological disasters in US history, is much worse than either corporate giant BP or government officials have admitted.
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water”, said Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia researcher who is part of a team of scientists studying the effects of the spreading oil spill.
“There's a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”
The oil depletes the life-giving oxygen in the gulf's waters, endangering myriad species of sea creatures that come in contact with the oil — or with the toxic chemical dispersants BP is pouring into the gulf, which mainly make things look better from the surface.
The government claims satellite images indicate the flow of oil spewing out of the sea floor a mile below is 5000 barrels a day. But Dr. Joye and other scientists fear the actual rate could be up to 80,000 barrels a day.
Under this worst case scenario, more than 318 million litres of oil had already flowed into the gulf's waters by May 17.
By comparison, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled about 42 million litres of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. More than two decades later, many of the region's beaches are still toxic and many wildlife species have not recovered.
BP has yet to come up with a way to stop or even control the toxic oil geyser. The only certain method is to drill a relief well that would draw off the oil flow — something BP officials say won’t be completed until August.
The destruction of the gulf's fragile ecosystems has already begun. The spill couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Atlantic bluefin tuna heading into the gulf for spawning and countless migratory and native birds nesting in the marshes at the mouth of the Mississippi River, 50 miles from spill’s source.
A desperate BP is celebrating its use of huge amounts of the chemical dispersant Corexit. But critics, including Louisiana authorities, say BP is performing a “toxic experiment” that may make things worse.
BP claims Corexit has undergone “lots of testing” and is biodegradable. But Corexit is made up of active ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol, which tests have shown to reduce fertility in animals, and propylene glycol, which is the main ingredient in antifreeze.
These substances further rob the ocean of its oxygen content.
Alan Levine, head of Louisiana’s health department, said: “We’re now basically using one of the richest ecosystems in the world as a laboratory.”
But BP sought and received permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to continue using the dispersant, despite the lack of data supporting its effectiveness in reducing the spread of the oil spill.
When officials from the three companies responsible for different aspects of the construction and operation of the deepwater rig that exploded — BP, Transocean and Halliburton — trudged to Capitol Hill for a May 11 hearing about the spill, they each had a reason why the others should bear primary responsibility.
The buck-passing got so bad President Barack Obama attacked the “ridiculous spectacle”.
Obama also criticised the “cozy relationship” between Big Oil and the federal agency that regulates drilling, the Minerals Management Service (MMS). He and promised to end the granting of drilling permits “too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies”.
But there is plenty of blame to go around — and the Democratic Party and Obama deserve their fair share.
Despite Obama’s tough talk — and environmentalists’ hopes that he would end Big Oil’s unfettered access to White House policy-makers — the administration has done nothing to slow the growth of the offshore oil drilling empire.
Obama delivered an ill-timed defence of offshore oil drilling in early April and a known oil industry champion — Ken Salazar— as interior secretary.
What’s more, Obama’s MMS has continued to grant exemptions to oil and gas corporations from doing in-depth environmental studies of exploration and production projects in the Gulf of Mexico.
MMS has granted at least 27 such exemptions in the weeks since the spill began.
Longtime environmental activist Harvey Wasserman lashed out at the administration for caving to the oil industry.
In a May 12 Counterpunch article, he said: “Our mass media should be filled with stirring images of a focused, determined President mobilizing all available assets to curb the damage.
“Instead, Barack Obama defends offshore drilling and endorses the resumption of whaling — if this underwater gusher actually leaves any alive.
“It is a suicidal tribute to the power of corporate ownership.”
At the core of the environmental threat posed by offshore oil drilling is the fact that oil corporations put their profits above all other considerations — even the lives of their own workers.
In 1990, the deepwater drilling in the gulf yielded roughly 20,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Last year, that number had grown to 1 million — a 50-fold increase in 20 years.
But the oil industry hasn’t invested anywhere near this scale to prevent or deal with gulf oil spills. The blowout preventers (BOP) that are supposed to provide multiple failsafe mechanisms for shutting off the flow of oil in the event of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon explosion are anything but failsafe.
A 2003 report by the then-director of technology development at Transocean suggested the relentless pressure to keep the drills turning meant fundamental problems with BOPs weren’t being sufficiently addressed.
Instead, they were rushed into the field without adequate testing, and failures were fixed with stop-gap maintenance.
With deepwater drilling projects taking place on a huge scale in the Gulf of Mexico, an accident on the scale we are now witnessing was bound to happen.
The sad truth is little can be done to clean up a big maritime oil spill. The only way to protect the environment, as well as the livelihoods of fisherpeople and others dependent on these ecosystems, is to prevent such spills from happening in the first place.
That means halting deepwater drilling operations — immediately. Failure to do so will come at an ecological price that is impossible to calculate.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]