Oil leakages: The unseen threat – Mehreen Tariq Ghani

The most important environmental milestone of the 21st century came in the form of the 2015 Paris Agreement; the first international framework of its kind that acknowledges the urgent threat of climate change after the Kyoto Protocol. However, while the Paris Agreement highlights the importance of mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases; no such framework exists for the effects of water pollution, and more importantly, oil spills and leakages.

Some Statistics:

Oil leakages and spills are environmental disasters that usually go under-reported, and the general public remains unaware of the immense frequency these accidents occur. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1.3 million gallons (4.9 million liters) of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. A major oil spill could easily double that amount. Between 1971 and 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard identified more than 250,000 oil spills in U.S. waters, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service. Approximately 1.7 billion gallons (6.4 billion liters) of oil were lost as a result of tanker incidents from 1970 to 2009, according to International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, a data collection body for oil spills from tankers and other sources.

Credit: Earthjustice

Ongoing dangerous incidents

The 15-year Taylor Energy oil spill:

Oil leakages are often not given media coverage, and as such are not treated with the same sense of urgency as other environmental issues. Additionally, the lack of awareness in the general public means that state governments do not feel pressured to counter these issues. For example, the Taylor oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been leaking oil into the ocean for 15 years.

Here are the facts:

  • The oil spill occurred in 2004, when an oil facility belonging to Taylor Energy sank in a mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan
  • They initially built containment domes around the oil plumes and plugged the leaking wells. Because they believed they contained the damage, the incident went unreported and the general public was unaware.
  • In 2010 however, local environment groups monitoring the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, noticed oil plumes leaking from the site. This finally garnered national attention to the incident and led to containment action by the U.S Coast Guard.
  • Taylor Energy along with the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC) stated that only 1–55 barrels are leaking per day.
  • On the contrary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report in 2019, of the impacts of the 2004 oil spill, and found that the destroyed oil facility may have been leaking more than a thousand times as much oil into the Gulf of Mexico than previously thought. Taylor Energy dismisses this research, along with independent studies showing that the oil site is leaking up to 697 barrels a day.

The fact that such an immense oil spill has gone unreported for 6 years, shows a huge lack of corporate responsibility on part of Taylor Energy. To this day, it has been leaking for 15 years and while clean up efforts are underway, this can be likened to treating the symptoms without remedying the cause. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network and several other conservationist organizations sued Taylor Energy in 2012, while also criticizing the federal government for withholding information from the public in a way that is “inconsistent with national policy.”

However the complacency of the government towards such issues is only highlighted further in light of the Trump administration’s proposal for expanding leases for the oil and gas industry, with plans to open nearly the entire outer continental shelf to offshore drilling; including the Atlantic coast, where hurricanes hit with double the regularity of the Gulf. Allowing drilling in high-risk areas is inviting another disaster like the Taylor oil spill, however this goes largely ignored by oil and gas giants as they can afford the costs for clean-ups and any lawsuits.

Sea Pelican covered in oil. Credit: The Center of American Progress

Impact on marine biodiversity:

The effects on marine biodiversity so far have not been measurable but according to biologists, oil spills can cause immense damage to already diminishing oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico making them unfit for human consumption for about 2–5 years. Sea turtles, birds and dolphins are commonly affected by oil spills, however sea birds are disproportionately affected. Seabirds are always among the casualties of oil spills- even a small bit of oil on their feathers impedes their ability to fly, swim and find food by diving. Ecologists and scientists have still been unable to estimate the impact on marine biodiversity, however studies are underway.

The 2019-present Brazilian oil crisis:

But, oil spills are not just historic news but phenomenon that continue to this day. As of September 2019, Brazil is undergoing its own oil spill crisis. Here are the highlights:

  • Oil from a mysterious, and so far, unidentified source has been washing ashore onto hundreds of miles of Brazilian mangroves and beaches.
  • Strangely, unlike normal crude oil that sticks to the surface of water, this oil is much denser and sinks below the surface of the water; a hindrance to cleanup efforts.
  • Brazil’s fauna has borne the brunt of this crisis. So far, as of Dec. 16, a total of 159 animals have been affected, 109 of which have died. The most affected group are sea turtles, according to Francisco Kelmo, director of the biology institute of Bahia’s Federal University (UFBA).
  • This crisis presents a potent threat to the environment that can cause long term consequences especially to marine biodiversity, and damages to the ecosystem are estimated to last for 10–12 years.
  • Research from a state oil company Petrobas, shows the oil could potentially be Venezuelan in nature, as it matches Venezuelan oil samples. The Venezuelan government, recently slapped with U.S. sanctions on their oil exports, has denied any involvement.
Oil spill near Brazilian mangroves and beaches. Credit: Al Jazeera

While many non-profit organizations have been involved in clean-up efforts and animal rescue, the Brazilian government commenced efforts in late October, more than a month since the first detection of the crisis. President Bolsonaro has already been under heavy criticism, since 2019 for his ineffective response to the Amazon fires. Since he ascended to presidency in early 2019, Bolsonaro slashed provisions protecting the Amazon and opened it to mining and deforestation. The Brazilian government’s slow response to oil spill may be a reflection of Bolsonaro’s anti-environment policies.

But who is actually responsible for oil leakages and spills?

The oil and gas industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: ThePrint

The fossil fuel industry. Since the Industrial Revolution, nation-states and governments have ignored the hazardous environmental damage caused by the usage of fossil fuels- all in the name of economic growth. Governments especially in the developed world where the entire economy is industrialized, have shown a reluctance to shift to cleaner, and more renewable energy resources. Why would they? According to market research by IBISWorld, the total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to approximately $3.3 trillion in 2019. The colossal contribution to global GDP itself ensures governments are unwilling to divest from this industry, and that these financial giants have enough money to build powerful lobbies within the legislative bodies of a country.

Nevertheless, it is also extremely costly. An IMF (International Monetary Fund) study shows that global subsidies to the oil and gas industry was $4.9 trillion in just 2013 and rose to $5.3 trillion in 2015, in just two years. These subsidies are not only staggering in number, but come at the price of fueling the damage to our environment, and discouraging investments into the renewable energy sector. Furthermore, subsidies are funded from tax revenue, money that could have gone into welfare sectors.

But, change is possible.

Change and reform is arriving, albeit slowly. In efforts to protect marine biodiversity in Canada, Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson announced that four industrial activities — oil and gas, mining, waste dumping and bottom trawling — would be banned in all new marine protected areas. A victory that was celebrated all over Canada by conservationist organizations.

The Guardian, a major global news organization, announced that they would renounce fossil fuel advertising, becoming the first major news company to institute an outright ban on taking money from companies that extract fossil fuels. This announcement comes in the context of the escalating global climate emergency.

Credit: Pacific Stanadard

Another ambitious tackle at climate change includes the Green New Deal. U.S Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a congressional resolution termed the Green New Deal, a proposal which calls for the federal government of the United States to begin transitioning to a green economy powered completely by renewable energy sources. The proposal sets a date to complete this transition by; 2035. While initial projected costs are high, supporters of the deal say the returns will be even greater, and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez believes it will boost economic growth by providing jobs in the clean energy sector.

In the race against climate change and impending planetary destruction, humanity must strive to innovate solutions to give us a chance at survival. Divesting away from the fossil fuel industry is a large step towards a greener future.


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