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Oil on the Water

Breaking News and Views about the Gulf Oil Spill.

Murky Waters

“A deathtrap of mucus gashing through the water like flypaper.” That’s how Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, describes the effect of the oil and gas from last summer’s disaster on the delicate marine organisms that inhabit the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

drawing of a zooplankton

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, Joye’s research team was among the earliest on the scene and the first to report huge underwater plumes of hydrocarbons gushing from the blown out Macondo well some 5,000 feet under water. Since May of last year, her team – which had been investigating microbial activity near the well before the blowout – has undertaken several research expeditions to the Gulf to observe …more

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A House Divided

Louisianans, One Year After the Spill

Following the news about the Gulf of Mexico one year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster can be like reading “A Tale of Two Places.” The ocean, the wetlands, the fish, and the birds are recovering, according to some people. Others say the mess left at the bottom of the sea by the BP blowout threatens to wreak havoc on the ocean food web for years to come. Most people, we hear, are all right. Or, we are told, some are getting sick.

Which tale is true? For many Gulf residents, especially those from Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the spill, the answer might be Both.

The choice of what to say about the BP spill reveals a tension between the private narratives Louisianans tell themselves and their families and the public narratives they …more

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Disaster in Another Language

The Oil Spill May Hit the Gulf’s Vietnamese Community Hardest

On a seared Monday afternoon in mid-June, the fishing dock in Port Sulphur, Louisiana was disturbingly quiet. The boat slips were full, a bad sign at what should have been the height of the fishing season. The place was nearly empty of people. A group of five BP-contracted cleanup workers lazed in the shade waiting for orders from higher-ups. A couple of US Fish and Wildlife Service guys loaded up a boat with cages for capturing oil-soaked birds. It was Day 55 of the oil spill.

The only people who looked busy were the Nguyen and Vu families. Despite punishing temperatures and humidity (the heat index was above 100 degrees), they were using the fishing closure as a chance to do some boat repairs. The families had removed the trawling riggings from their boats and had the …more

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Hide and Leak

BP’s Cleanup Is More Like a Cover up. Holding the Company Accountable Will Require Digging for the Truth.

photo of a man standing on an industrial ship watching a fire at sea

On July 15, BP managed to finally seal its broken Macondo wellhead and stop the oil that had been hemorrhaging into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The very next week, as I was driving up the Florida coast, locals kept pointing out to me where cleanup workers were packing up and pulling out. From Crawfordville through to Carrabelle, and Port St. Joe to Pensacola, the booms were disappearing, the crew tents folded up and removed from beaches.

The well had been capped, after all. The gusher had stopped. Game over. Everyone can go home, right?

Not even close. If all goes according to plan, the relief well should provide a more permanent fix. But that hasn’t been the …more

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No Comment

Despite a flood of information about the Gulf spill, there’s very little understanding of its impacts.

photo of a worker bagging oily debrisDeepwater Horizon Unified CommandCleanup workers are getting little clear information about the dangers of
exposure to oil and dispersants.

After more than 100 days of disaster news stories, countless press conferences, and regular updates on government websites, we still have very little real understanding of the Deepwater Horizon blowout’s impacts – short- or long-term – on the ocean ecosystem, Gulf Coast communities, or response workers. Environmental-monitoring data released by federal agencies and BP, while copious, fails to answer the many questions prompted by reported health complaints. Compounding this dilemma is the fact that information is being actively withheld.

Here’s a reminder of what we’re grappling with: To date, more than 200 million gallons of petroleum have gushed from the ruptured well, oiling 650 miles of …more

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We Are All Louisianans

About 7,000 years ago, global sea levels stabilized and the Mississippi River began creating a broad delta at the southern edge of North America. Over millennia, mud from the Missouri River, Ohio River silt, and the sluff off the Ozark Mountains tumbled down the continent and, at the great river’s mouth, spilled and spread into an intricate coastline of inlets, estuaries, and bays. In time, this waterscape became the perfect habitat for oysters, crabs, crawfish, and shrimp – one of the most abundant fisheries in the world.

Long before that, during the Jurassic period, organic matter collected at the bottom of what we now call the Gulf of Mexico and during millions of years, pressed by the weight of the world, transformed into hydrocarbons. In places like the Mississippi Canyon, a mile-deep trench off the river’s terminus, …more

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Weekly Mulch: Dispersants Harm Gulf Spill Workers

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

BP’s relief wells are just short of sealing off the Macondo well, the epicenter of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For the Gulf community, this milestone might herald a sigh of mental relief. But clean-up workers are feeling the after-effects of working with oil and the chemical dispersants used to dispel it, and physical relief is still a ways off.

Symptoms include...

There are plenty of reports about the toll relief work is taking on Gulf Coast residents who stepped in to clean the oil off sea waters and beaches. Many of these workers, idled from their regular gigs by the BP spill, had little choice about taking on …more

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Who the Hell’s in Charge Here?

A Sneak Peak from our Autumn 2010 Issue

This summer — as we’ve sweated through one punishing heat wave after another — it’s been difficult to know which is the worse environmental disaster: the just-barely-contained BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico or the failure of the US Senate (the “greatest deliberative body in the world”?) to even debate long-overdue climate legislation. The waters of the Gulf and the political culture in Washington seem equally poisoned. Across the country I have heard expressions of surprise that the Macondo oil well has finally, mercifully, been capped. And if many were dismayed by the Senate’s inaction, few people showed astonishment at the legislators’ impasse. Such is the depth of our public cynicism: …more

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Devil’s Bargain: How the BP Disaster Sank the Climate Bill

A Sneak Peek from the Autumn 2010 Issue

A week after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, entertainer Rush Limbaugh suggested that environmentalists had caused the disaster in order to pass cap-and-trade legislation that wouldn’t include new offshore drilling or loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. A massive environmental disaster, on the eve of the fortieth Earth Day celebration, right before the planned introduction of the Senate climate bill — the timing, as Limbaugh noted, seemed too pat. And, in fact, toward the end of the failed Copenhagen climate talks last December, some despondent green campaigners privately confided to each other that they thought only a major disaster could build the public pressure to enact policies sufficiently ambitious to tackle …more

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Oil Work Like “Wrestlin’ with a Tornado”

A glimpse of life in the extraction industry

Amid the vast sea of ink spilled in the course of covering the blowout of BP’s Macondo well, the media has given very little attention to the men (and they’re all men) who do the hard, dirty, and often dangerous work in the oil and gas industry. Partially this is a matter of the inherent biases of storytelling: Any reporter seeking to understand the impact of the BP gusher is naturally going to be more attracted to struggling fishermen and on-the-verge-of-bankruptcy hotel owners than to the saltwater roughnecks who maintain the 3,000 oil and gas drilling and production facilities in the Gulf. But there’s another challenge to getting the oil workers’ story: …more

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Gulf? What Gulf? Obama Admin Goes for More Drilling in Alaska

Alaska National Petroleum ReserveThe Interior Department announced today--a Friday afternoon, perfect for avoiding press--the opening up of oil and gas drilling leases for 1.8 million acres of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve to oil and gas drilling. Energy and Environment reports that the Bureau of Land Management is selling leases for 190 tracts of land in the reserve, and bidding will close August 11th. The sale is one of dozens, mostly in Western states, that the Interior Department announced in November.

On the positive side, in addition to opening up drilling leases in the reserve, the department …more

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Strain from the Oil Spill Is Beginning to Show

Social Service Providers Report High Rates of Anxiety and Depression

About three weeks ago, I attended a community gathering in Houma, LA put together by the Coast Guard and other government agencies to give Louisianans impacted by the BP blowout a chance to connect with social service providers and to get more information about the spill. Though well intentioned, the event was poorly organized: Instead of hosting a clear and straightforward presentation, the Coast Guard and the Terrebonne Parish authorities had arranged the event like a job fair, with different booths addressing different parts of the crisis. There was table for submitting BP compensation claims staffed a pair of fellows who kind of looked like down-market George Clooney clones. An EPA table; …more

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Beyond Oil Addiction

The Gulf Spill Shows We’re More Like an Abused Spouse

(This piece originally appeared at Alternet.org)

Back in the early aughts, me and Mike Brune (now the head of the Sierra Club) and Jen Krill (today the executive director of the group Earthworks) launched a national grassroots campaign to push U.S. auto companies to move away from oil. I was working then at Global Exchange, Brune and Krill were at Rainforest Action Network, and we hoped that by combining the forces of our two organizations we could jumpstart a new conversation about how our reliance on fossil fuels jeopardized not only the environment but also human rights and national security. The centerpiece of our campaign was a call to …more

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The Buck Never Stops

Halliburton Profiting on Gulf Spill Cleanup

How’s this for a business model? First, you make a bundle of cash by providing essential services to the oil majors as they undertake tricky (and risky) offshore oil and gas extraction. Then, when one of the wells you’re working on blows up, you sneak away from any possible liabilities. And finally, to bring everything full circle, you then rack up additional profits with your oil spill cleanup division.

That pretty well describes Halliburton’s masterful playing of the BP oil disaster. The preliminary investigations into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blowout show that Halliburton’s job in the cementing work on the well may have led to the gas leakage …more

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Visualize Tens of Millions of Gallons of Oil

Unless you’re a deep sea fishermen who has spent years trawling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (and I’m guessing you’re not), it’s pretty hard to wrap your mind around the size of area affected by the BP blowout. As of today, June 25, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has closed about 78,000 square miles to fishing — or roughly one-third of federal waters in the gulf. According to the team at SkyTruth, the oil slick and oil sheen cover about 11,278 square miles and 18,473 square miles respectively.

Eleven thousand square miles is just a tad smaller than the total area of the state …more

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Oil Spill Kills Gulf Coast Shrimp Season; A Culture Hangs in the Balance

"This is the one thing that could destroy our culture and I don't want to see it happen," says Grand Isle, Louisiana resident Karen Hopkins, wiping at tears she's clearly fighting. Hopkins, a Louisiana native and long-time resident of Grand Isle, runs the office at Dean Blanchard Seafood. Blanchard typically buys 13 to 15 million pounds of Gulf Coast shrimp annually. Hopkins' house sits across from what should be a busy loading area for Dean Blanchard Seafood and no more than ten yards from a pier where boats that should be gearing up for a night out shrimping are coming in from a day skimming oil and changing oil-soaked boom.

It's June …more

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Vietnamese Among Hardest Hit By BP Spill

Immigrant Community Relies Exclusively on Fishing

On Monday afternoon, things were pretty quiet at the commercial fishing dock in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. The boat slips were full (a bad sign), but the place was nearly empty of people. A group of five BP-contracted cleanup workers lazed in the shade waiting for orders from higher-ups (“it’s really boring,” one told me). A couple of US Fish and Wildlife Service employees loaded up a boat with cages for capturing oil-soaked birds. The only people who looked like they had a deadline to meet were the Nguyen and Vu families, who were using the closure of fishing waters as a chance to make some repairs on their boats. Despite punishing afternoon …more

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Louisiana Is What Oil Addiction Looks Like

On the Bayou, Fishing and Oil Are Kissin’ Cousins

The front page of the Sunday New Orleans Times-Picayune is dominated by the kind of articles that have become the mainstay of oil spill coverage here: A piece on how local restaurants are coping with the loss of oysters, a review of the tensions between the Coast Guard and BP, and a look at a very similar oil blowout that occurred last year off the coast of Australia. The letters to the editor and the editorials tell a different story. There, the ink is spent on the controversy swirling around President Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. In a pair of editorials on the moratorium, the newspaper’s writers conclude: “The …more

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Oil on the Water

An Eyewitness Account from Barataria Bay

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and sank 53 days ago, killing 11 men and unleashing a gusher of oil, reporters have complained that federal government officials and representatives of BP have sought to restrict access to oil-impacted sites to manipulate media coverage of the disaster. Here in Grande Isle — ground zero for the spill — the main beach is closed, as is all of adjacent Elmer’s Island, normally a popular vacation spot. The beaches are no-go zones even for homeowners with beachfront property, and the press can hit the sand only by going through a complicated credentialing process. The Coast Guard is arranging media tours by boat, but …more

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Lousiana’s Oystermen Hit the Hardest by Spill

If they can cover the time and fuel costs to get beyond the area closed by the BP oil blowout (granted, a big if), a shrimp captain or fishermen can keep their business going. Louisiana’s oyster farmers are in a much tougher position. Oysters, after all, are raised, not caught. They have to be grown under very specific conditions, places where the water temperature is just right and the mix of salt water and fresh water just so. With the oil slick creeping into the inlets of Louisiana’s coast, those special places risk destruction.

Even as some shrimp and fin fish continue to be offloaded onto the state’s docks, the Louisiana …more

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