Gulf oil spill spreads to shore

Faint traces of oily sheen have reached the mouth of Mississippi River, the vanguard of a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The slick is making its way toward some of the nation's richest seafood ground.
Jacqueline Savitz
Sr. Scientist, Oceana
Friday, April 30, 2010; 2:30 PM

A huge spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico washed up to coastal Louisiana wildlife and seafood areas on Friday and the U.S. government and military struggled to avert what could become one of the nation's worst ecological disasters.

Jacqueline Savitz, senior scientist at Oceana, an international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, was online Friday, April 30, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss the impact on the environment, effects on local business and the future of offshore drilling.


Jacqueline Savitz: Hi, this is Jackie Savitz here from Oceana. I'm here to talk about the oil spill in the Gulf and it's effect on the environment. I'm looking forward to answering your questions.


Who pays?: Will BP pays for the environmental cleanups and damage? Who would make sure that BP won't wiggle out of this payment once the media attention goes away? Thanks.

Jacqueline Savitz: This is a very good question. BP is considered the "responsible party" and is expected to pay for the cleanup. They should also pay for any natural resource damages. The government will need to make sure they do this. As you may recall, getting Exxon to do so was not so easy so it may involve the courts. But that is the understanding that they are the responsible party.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How does this oil spill directly affect aquatic life? What immediate and direct damage does this do to what species of fish and other aquatic life, which move but are displaced, and what are some of the ecosystem changes that can result from this?

Jacqueline Savitz: There are a lot of marine life at risk. Sea turtles, fish, marine mammals, birds, you name it. Oil is extremely toxic to marine life of all kinds.

Many fish spawn in the Gulf including Atlantic blue fin tuna which are under severe pressure from overfishing. Their larvae are very sensitive and the spill could affect their populations. Also snapper and grouper, all of those are important commercially.

There are also 4 species of sea turtles in the Gulf and they are all endangered or threatened. They can be exposed to oil when they come up to breath, and end up being coated by oil and even swallowing some of it. This can interfere with their digestion, respiration, and a variety of other functions.

Sea birds are the classic poster child for oil spills. Coating can leave them unable to keep warm and cause hypothermia.

So there are a lot of ways marine life will be impacted by the spill even long before it gets to land.


Calgary, Alberta: This paper reported that "That inquiry will likely focus on the blowout-preventer, which like the sunken drilling rig, was owned by Transocean. In Norway, for example, blowout preventers are required to have a device known as an acoustic valve that can help assure activation in the event of an accident, but that device isn't required in the United States and wasn't part of the blowout preventer used on this well. BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said Wednesday that the blowout preventer had been inspected 10 days before the accident."

The question is did BP use a blowout preventer or not? And, would the device mentioned as required in Norway have prevented this disaster? Do we know for sure?

Jacqueline Savitz: My understanding is that they have a blowout preventer but not the type used in Norway. While it would be better to have this technology, the truth is technology often fails. The blowout preventer they have failed. The bottom line in our view is that there is no safe way to drill that is guaranteed, and that the safety and cleanup technology has not kept pace with the drilling technology. This is why we are calling for a moratorium on all new drilling, including for exploration.


Lock Haven, Pa.: Do you think this spill will have long-term effects on President Obama's efforts to build up our offshore drilling?

Jacqueline Savitz: I think the spill is making a lot of people rethink their views on offshore drilling. We have been told by the industry that drilling is safe, and it's clearly not. We were told it would lower gas prices, and make us energy independent, which the Energy Information Agency says it will not do (government agency). So it becomes hard to see the benefits of expanding offshore drilling.

On the other hand, clean energy options create 3 times more jobs than traditional fossil fuels and offer us an opportunity to build a new manufacturing base, and be exporters rather than energy importers. It's clean, helps solve climate change, and most of all, can not spill. So we think it's pretty obvious that we'd be better off investing in offshore wind, for example, than offshore oil.


Tampa, Fla.: What is the best site on the Internet to view current satellite photographs of the oil slick?

If the spill continues unabated at its present rate for several months, what will be the approximate rate of change of the area of the slick?

What would be the maximum size after three months?

Jacqueline Savitz: I don't know if it's the best site but you should check out

It's really hard to predict the size after that long. It will depend on the winds and currents. But if it goes southward (opposite of where it is now going) it could get into the "Loop current" which could bring it around to Southeast Florida, Miami, etc. But right now it is moving to the north mostly.


Washington, D.C.: I agree with you that there shouldn't be any additional offshore drilling, but what are the chances of that actually happening? Even in the face of a disaster like this, I don't think the oil companies will just give up. What can we do to help stop this drilling?

Jacqueline Savitz: I think we are already beginning to see the tone here in Washington changing, as well as elsewhere. Many Senators have spoken up. Governor Crist of Florida has said he now sees that this can not be done safely. If more Senators moved in this direction, it could really change the direction of the discussion. The only way that happens is if voters speak up. We need to let people know that "drill baby drill" sounded good at the time but now we see it was a mistake.

_______________________ Flick'r: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill 2010


Brooklyn, N.Y.: The U.S. doesn't require offshore rigs to have a remote shut-off that a few other countries do, apparently due to lobbying by BP and the other major oil companies. Any idea how much it would have cost to add this functionality to a rig compared to how much BP spent on lobbying against that regulation (and compared to the billions that this disaster is going to cost)?

It is unfathomable to me that this is just going to spurt oil for weeks until the pocket of oil is dry, and that they aren't required to build in a remote failsafe.

Jacqueline Savitz: I know. I can't fathom it either, no pun taken.

I don't know for a fact, but the costs that are being discussed are as follows:

"An acoustic trigger costs about $500,000, industry officials said. The Deepwater Horizon had a replacement cost of about $560 million, and BP says it is spending $6 million a day to battle the oil spill."

As I said before, this just is not a safe business, even with an acoustic trigger, and we should prevent future spills like this from happening by not expanding offshore drilling.


Amherst, Mass.: President Obama on April 2nd when opening up new parcels for oil drilling said "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." This is clearly false as this most recent incident demonstrates.

He has again today committed to open up new parcels for oil drilling.

What does this say about the quality of the advice that the President gets? Or does the president just ignore the advice?

Jacqueline Savitz: I think in fairness, they have said they will hold off and not allow drilling if it's not clear that it's safe for the environment. The question is, now that we know what we know, could we ever really believe that it could be safe? Devices fail. So, that's why we think he should reinstate a moratorium on all new drilling including for exploration - keeping in mind, this well was exploratory.


Greenbelt, Md.: Can you tell me what groups I can contact to volunteer to help with the cleanup? I don't have formal training but would be willing to fly out there for a few days to help however if they need people.

Jacqueline Savitz: The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana is taking names of people who are interested in helping. Their webpage is Mobile Baykeeper is also collecting names. Tristate Bird Rescue is on the scene as well as far as I know.


Denver, Colo.: How much will this end up costing local fisheries in the Gulf?

Jacqueline Savitz: The Gulf fish and shellfish industry commercially harvests about $660 million worth of seafood each year. It's hard to say how much that will be affected or for how long. But it is clear that it will be affected. As will the coastal tourism industry in those states.


Newport Beach, Calif.: How do the currents move and how will those currents affect states like MS,AL, TX and FLA? Will there be permanent harm?

Jacqueline Savitz: It's a little bit hard to predict over the long term. Right now the wind seems to be the main driver, and it's pushing the oil to the north, where it will hit the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and probably Florida. To get into the loop current, the wind would have to shift to drive the oil southward. If that happens, and it is not happening as of now, it could take the oil around to the east coast of Florida.


Washington, D.C.: I'm going to Belize on vacation next week. Will this oil spill reach Central America and the barrier reef there?

Jacqueline Savitz: It's not looking like it, at least, not next week. Have a great trip and look up Oceana's Belize office! :)


Jacqueline Savitz: I understand the CRCL website didn't work. You can also try Mobile Bay Keeper at


Charlotte, N.C.: How will the cost for the cleanup be assessed? Is there really a price for ecological damage? What about the potential loss of future-earnings for fisheries?

Jacqueline Savitz: This is a very good question. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does have a method for estimating the value of natural resources. It's not perfect, but it's a good program that tries to get our natural resources covered, and even replaced after a disaster. Obviously we never really get the full value back, but they try.

To me the question is whether we learn from our mistakes and avoid making the same mistake again. That means not expanding drilling beyond what's already producing.

_______________________ Welcome To Mobile Baykeeper


Columbia, Md.: What can an individual do to help? Is there a volunteer program to go and clean the birds? Or should we just give money? Thanks.

Jacqueline Savitz: In addition to the other links, I understand that TriState is also involved. Here is their web site and I checked that it works. You may have to find out how to sign up to volunteer though.


Eastport, Md.: One of the big factors in BP's inability to cap the leak is the fact that they drilled in over 5000 feet of water. Have there been restrictions on the depth of drilling, and is this likely to be a restriction in the future in the approval process for new drilling permits?

Jacqueline Savitz: Good point. The technology has improved for the drilling but this event shows the safety and cleanup technology has not kept pace. A depth restriction would make sense but we would go further. We need to shift our energy economy to clean energy and away from fossil fuels. We are going to keep drilling where we are already drilling, but if we are serious about that shift, we should not expand drilling to places that were previously protected. We think the President should put a moratorium in place on all new drilling, even for exploration.

The press conference is going on now - and the Governor of Louisiana is saying he's ready to move in the National Guard, they are doing everything they can he says. Yes, except for one thing. They can start saying no to new drilling.


Tampa, Fla.: Will BP reimburse the Navy (funded by the taxpayer) for its assistance?

Or is this the typical scenario of privatized profits and socialized costs?

Jacqueline Savitz: I believe that is the plan and we should hold them to it.


Harrisburg, Pa.: It would seem to me that prior to any oil rig being put in any waters, that there would be enough scientific knowledge and understanding as to how to cap any oil well, no matter where it is. Don't the government. people realize that many calamities can take place? Hurricanes, tornadoes, quakes to name a few -- and which are happening more and more. What about the rest of the oil rigs in the Gulf. And it should not take long at all to contain this stuff. Where have the scientists been all these years after the the Valdez problem. This is a total catastrophe with no decent responses (as usual for the government).

Jacqueline Savitz: Amen


Jacqueline Savitz: Secretary of Homeland Security also is pledging to make every effort on behalf of the Obama administration and use all the resources at their disposal, and they are even planning for a worst case scenario.

(Wow, this is bad, we really need to not let this happen again) - my commentary, not Secretary Napolitano's.


Jacqueline Savitz: Thanks for all the great questions! I am going to have to sign off now. Please keep the pressure on to avoid letting this happen again, and you can follow our work at Oceana and my tweets at @jackiesavitz.


_______________________ From the press conference going on now in Robert, La., Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said that they just flew over oil spill; that BP is responsible to fund the cost of the cleanup; that the president wants to use every resource at our disposal. Napolitano says that we have planned for the worst case scenario and that the spill is of national significance. A chemical is being dispersed on the oil spill.

_______________________ This now concludes the discussion.


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