Thursday, May 20, 2010

A month into gulf spill disaster, major questions linger. So Sad!

A bulldozer drives along a beach as oil laps onto the shore on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., Thursday, May 20, 2010. Oil from last month's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has started drifting ashore along the Louisiana coast.

Thursday marks a month since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform that killed 11 oil workers and unleashed a still-spewing torrent of oil from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. As the first blanket of oil comes ashore on the Louisiana wetlands, questions linger about the spill and its impact. Here's a rundown of issues that inquiries into the disaster have yet to resolve:

How much oil has leaked?

BP initially estimated that the well was pumping about 42,000 gallons daily (from three different leaks) into the gulf. A few days later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an estimate of five times that.

Scientists examining satellite photos showing the reach of the spill contended that NOAA's estimate should be increased another fivefold— to about 1 million gallons a day.

[Raw video: Coast Guard burns gas from BP well]

As conflicting estimates continued to surface, scientists pushed for the release of BP's underwater video footage of the leak at its source — a request the company stonewalled for weeks (theories seeking to explain BP's reluctance abound, and almost all of them tilt toward the dastardly). Last week, BP finally released a 30-second snippet of footage — thereby furnishing evidence that the spill was much worse than most investigators had assumed, pumping as much as 70,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf. At that rate, the well was releasing the same amount of oil lost during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster during a four-day span.

Scientists who study the impact of old spills have faulted the Obama administration for not releasing more information about the gulf disaster — and for failing to compel BP to supply the material for a more timely and accurate assessment . Rick Steiner, a marine biologist who worked on the aftermath of the Valdez spill, told the New York Times that "a vast ecosystem is being exposed to contaminants right now, and nobody's watching it. That seems to me like a catastrophic failure on the part of NOAA."

[Slide show: Giant tar blobs wash ashore]

Earlier this week, BP released some additional video footage that seemed to give a clearer and more sustained picture of the rate of flow from the broken well. Once these images — obtained after more prodding on Capitol Hill from Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and other lawmakers — are analyzed, they may spur another sharp rise in estimates, since they show that the smallest of the three leaks is spewing oil at a much greater volume than previously thought.

All of which is to say that even a month into the disaster, the true scale of the leakage is still unknown. The key to arriving at a reliable estimate, experts say, is to monitor video footage of the leak site for several hours straight to establish the rate of flow from the broken well.

What's the likely fallout of the spill?

This, too, is still largely a matter of conjecture — though as with the oil-leak guessing game, there's little cause to believe that the final answer will be remotely encouraging. With Thursday's landfall in the wetlands off Louisiana's Gulf Coast, the enormous stakes of the catastrophe are starting to sink in for the land-based natural and social order in the spill's path.

[Slide show: Animals bear brunt of oil spill]

Area wildlife has taken a hit: 156 sea turtles, 12 bottlenose dolphins and 23 oiled birds have been found dead since the oil began leaking and since millions of gallons of chemical dispersants — which pose environmental hazards of their own — have been dumped into the gulf to contain it. NOAA Fisheries Director Steve Murawski, commenting Wednesday on the first wave of wildlife deaths, noted that these numbers probably represent a small fraction of the devastation in marine life habitats.

"The impacts are difficult to detect offshore because the area is difficult to observe," Murawski told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "But the long-term impacts of this event are likely to express themselves for years to come."

Forecasters also say that the spill's reach will spread far beyond the Louisiana coast. It already appears to be bound for the Florida coast, and from there, may well move up the Eastern Seaboard in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, giant plumes of oxygen-sucking oil lurk far beneath the surface.

[Video: Oil enters the loop current]

This paints an exceedingly grim picture of the prospects ahead for people in the gulf region who earn their livelihoods from the water — everyone from commercial fishermen and seafood wholesalers to workers in the regional tourist industry. On Tuesday, the federal government closed off one-fifth of the gulf to fishing. That area is sure to expand with the scale of the leak — and no one can be sure when these waters will again be able to safely accommodate fishing and other human activities, especially since the life of the leak may extend for years.

The leak may well wreak some long-term havoc on the existing model for federal regulation of the offshore oil industry — and will almost certainly produce some long-term legal fallout. Observers expect that several executives from the companies involved in the spill — BP; Transocean, which leased the rig to BP; and Halliburton, a contractor on the rig — could face criminal charges. On Wednesday, the White House announced plans to split into three parts the agency that oversees offshore drilling.

The political climate surrounding offshore drilling will probably also change dramatically. In March, President Obama announced that the White House would reverse a longstanding ban on offshore drilling off the Eastern U.S. Commentators hailed the move at the time as politically savvy, but it now looks like a nonstarter at best — and a colossal miscue at worst. In the wake of the spill, public opinion is shifting sharply on the question of expanded drilling. Now doubts are being raised over pending plans to to increase drilling off California and in the Arctic, as well as in the Atlantic corridor opened up under the new White House policy.

Who's to blame?

In recent Capitol Hill testimony, executives at BP, Transocean and Halliburton muddied the question of ultimate accountability for the disaster. President Obama called their performance a "ridiculous spectacle." But more dispassionate accounts of the April 20 explosion that destroyed the underwater well are starting to emerge.

A "60 Minutes" report that aired this past Sunday interviewed a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and verified that crewmembers had either ignored or insufficiently addressed serious safety concerns on the rig as BP executives pressed them to drill down faster into Earth's core to reach the oil. Based on that survivor's account, Bob Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley that BP clearly bore chief responsibility for the disaster.

— Brett Michael Dykes is a national affairs writer for Yahoo! News.

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