Gulf Ecology Recovering from Spill while Feds Compound Economic Woes

Published August 6, 2010

Working in a variety of ways, Mother Nature appears to be taking the lead in restoring the ecological health of the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of what President Obama has called “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” The federal government, however, is putting up enormous roadblocks to the region’s economic recovery.

Oil Dissipating
The giant oil slicks have all but disappeared, and Louisiana’s coast has been largely spared from the massive pollution many observers feared would destroy the state’s coastal grasslands and bayous.

Response teams have collected approximately 3,000 dead birds and nearly 500 dead sea turtles, some of which can be directly attributed to the BP accident. The cost to wildlife, however tragic, has nonetheless been lower than expected. Wind turbines in California’s Altamont Pass alone kill approximately 7,000 birds each year, and the American Bird Conservancy estimates wind turbines kill at least 75,000 birds each year throughout the United States.

Nature Took the Lead
A veritable army of federal, state, and local response teams, assisted by numerous private organizations, converged on the Gulf to clean up the mess. Beaches were combed for tar balls, booms were placed in the water, dispersant was dropped from aircraft, and 4,000 skimmer boats were sent out to soak up as much oil as could be found.

Yet as impressive as the work was—once it was finally coordinated—the human effort paled in comparison with the restorative powers of nature. 

By far the biggest cleansing agents at work in the Gulf are microbes which feasted on the oil. The Gulf’s warm water makes an ideal habitat for fungi and bacteria, and they made astonishingly quick work of the light, sweet, and easily degradable crude oil that gushed up from the Gulf’s floor. Evaporation, helped along by the warm summer sun, did its part, as did massive flows of fresh water from the Mississippi River, which kept most of the oil away from the coast.

Gulf Naturally Clears Oil
The Gulf of Mexico is a huge body of water with currents and frequent storms (especially in the summer) that keep water, and whatever has spilled into it, in motion, enabling oil to break up more easily.

In addition, the Gulf is by no means “pristine.” Oil and gas seepage through cracks in the ocean floor are part of nature. In “Estimates of the Total Hydrocarbon Seepage into the Gulf of Mexico from Satellite Remote Sensing Images,” a paper presented at the 2000 Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, one researcher estimated 500,000 barrels of oil seep into the Gulf each year. This is why the Gulf’s microbes pounced on BP’s oil—they recognized a familiar food source.

Regional Economy Suffering
Although it is too soon to pass judgment on the long-term environmental effects on the Gulf resulting from the BP accident, the initial signs of an ecological recovery are encouraging.

When the Gulf states will experience an economic rebound from the spill, however, is another question. Tourism in the area is down sharply, with beachfront hotels, restaurants, and shops suffering from a lack of business. The area’s vibrant seafood industry was shut down for weeks and is only now beginning to open back up.

Far and away the biggest blow to the region’s economy, however, has come from the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling. A district court overturned the moratorium on June 22, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a new suspension of offshore deepwater drilling on July 13, which is expected to last through November.

The government’s moratorium has forced oil and gas companies and related businesses operating in the area to lay off thousands of workers.

National Implications of Moratorium
The moratorium is expected to impact the national economy as well. The American Petroleum Institute (API) points out 33 now-idle deepwater wells have passed inspection and are ready to resume operation.

“Eighty percent of oil and 45 percent of natural gas produced in the Gulf comes from deepwater areas,” said API President Jack Gerod in a press statement. “The 20 most prolific producing blocks in the Gulf are located in deep water. Deep water is indispensable to a strong and secure energy future. The moratorium makes that future uncertain.”     

Obama ‘Dismantling the Economy’
Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, says the moratorium reflects an Obama administration prejudice against energy production.

“The administration is proving itself a complete disaster on energy matters, having aligned itself with the most extreme no-growth groups while millions of Americans are crying out for jobs and a growing economy” he said. “From killing nuclear power with their decision on Yucca Mountain, to stopping coal mining, to canceling leases and breaching contracts, they are systematically dismantling the lifeblood of our economy—energy—and promising to replace it with government-funded pixie dust.”

“The federal government is doing this at a time when China is overtaking the United States as the largest energy user in the world,” Kish explained. “The U.S. snatched that lead from the British over a century ago, … and all agree that is the first step historically to becoming the world’s leading economy. The OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) moratorium is the latest example of energy and leadership malfeasance, compounding the Gulf’s crisis by seizing it to pursue a goal of contrived energy scarcity.”

Kish continued, “Tens of thousands of well-paying jobs may leave for good from America’s premier oil province after more than 60 years of successful offshore operations and 40,000 successful oil and gas wells. A great nation cannot base its energy decisions on a freak accident. And if it does, it will not be great for long.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of the National Center for Public Policy Research.