Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Oil Habit Unchanged on Two-Year Anniversary of BP's Gulf of Mexico Spill


burning-deepwater-horizonTwo years ago, 11 men lost their lives as a backlash of gas exploded into the night from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In the ensuing months, roughly 5 million barrels of oil and more than 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas spewed into the ocean from the Macondo well more than a kilometer underwater. It took the combined efforts of the U.S. government, the world's major oil companies and, finally, a lonely hydrologist working through the night from a cellphone picture of pressure reading graphs to cap the spill on July 15, 2010.

Two years later, Gulf seafood remains suspect in consumers' minds, despite the "sniff test." Fishermen and scientists report an excess of deformed or sickly sea life, and more than a million barrels of spilled oil remain "missing," likely never to be found. The Gulf's dolphins have been dying, deepwater corals remain coated in hydrocarbons and many people involved in the clean-up complain of poor health.

It will take decades to fully reckon the toll of BP's 2010 oil spill. In fact, science is still grappling with the after effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill. It took three years for Prince William Sound in Alaska's herring fishery to collapse and 20 years to reach a legal settlement.

Meanwhile, an invisible leak of natural gas is ongoing in the North Sea from an offshore platform operated by French oil company Total. Oil spills occur weekly in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. And the oil industry has resumed deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as well as prospecting in the melting Arctic, without adequate oversight or the resources to contain or clean up any future spills in the frigid north.

BP can and should bear legal consequence for its negligence, but the ultimate blame for the Macondo well spill falls squarely on us Americans and our way of life. We consume roughly a quarter of the world's oil to fuel our cars, trucks and just-in-time shipping. The world consumes a barrel of oil every second. Sadly, more oil runs off U.S. parking lots after rainstorms in a year than spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Macondo well during the three-month blow-out. Oil addiction ain't pretty.

Image: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. A Coast Guard MH-65C dolphin rescue helicopter and crew document the fire, while searching for survivors. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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