As I type this, somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. The colossal oil spill in our backyard will undoubtedly have devastating effects on nearby ecosystems and industries for years to come, but the scary part is that nobody seems to know how to stop the flow. It’s estimated that 7 to 9 million gallons of oil have already burst into our Gulf waters – just a couple million gallons away from surpassing the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in magnitude – and there is currently no end in sight. At this rate, we’ll witness the world’s largest oil spill in the next few days.
While we scratch our heads and try to figure out how to stop multiple oil leaks 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, we must simultaneously find a way to clean up the oil that is oozing rapidly from BP’s faulty lines.
There are a few ways to clean up an oil spill:
- Leave the oil alone – let it dissipate naturally over a number of years. This isn’t an option in the landlocked Gulf, with its miles of coastline that would (and probably will) quickly become coated in crude oil, causing mass chaos for coastal humans and wildlife alike.
- Contain the spill with booms and collect the oil using surface-skimming equipment. The oil spill in the Gulf is getting too large to use this method – and the windy weather this week has created waves too large for skimming vessels to work efficiently.
- Burn the oil – probably our best option at this point, but there’s a huge amount of pollution involved and the smoke is thick and unpleasant. Some Gulf residents are already complaining of headaches and nausea.
- Use chemical dispersants to break up the oil into small droplets that sink to the bottom of the ocean.
When I heard that the US has dropped 1/3 of the world’s supply of dispersants (100,000 gallons) into the Gulf over the past few days, all I could think about was one of my favorite movies as a kid: The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room. Just watch the first 2 1/2 minutes of this clip:
Using dispersants is like hiding the mess from Mom (or in this case, world citizens). Obviously BP and US Coast Guard officials never watched the film, or they would know that hiding the mess from Mom is not a sustainable solution – because when Mom finds out, she’s going to be furious, and Cleanup Round 2 will not be fun.
The dispersant method of cleaning up an oil spill appears to minimize coastal damage by relocating oil from the surface of the ocean to the bottom, but when Mom opens the closet door in a few years, the enormous mess will come spilling out. Sending oil to the bottom of the ocean damages sea grass beds and coral reefs, and the oil is inadvertently consumed by mussels and other filter feeders – many of which make up the bottom of the Gulf food chain. The chemicals in the oil (mixed with the mysterious top-secret chemicals in the dispersants) will accumulate up the food chain over time until high levels are found in species that humans like to consume.
The Gulf is one of the world’s top food-producing ecosystems. By using dispersants, we are poisoning marine organisms, ourselves, and our children. Let’s learn a lesson from the Berenstain Bears: clean the mess up correctly the first time, so you won’t have to do it again later.