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What's next for the oil spill?

Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace via EPA
An aerial view shows ships surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico oil slick on May 18.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is entering a new phase, one month after the explosion that touched off the disaster. It's finally sinking in among environmental experts, policymakers and the general public that this spill is unlike any other. The impact will be felt hundreds of miles away from the deep-sea leak, for years after it's been stopped.

"We have to be ready for the long haul, to see this through. ... Maybe nationally, people might draw their attention away from this incident," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, one of the leaders of the oil-spill response team, told reporters. "I want to assure you that there will still be people working on this response."

But a month of round-the-clock efforts to block the leak and fight the spill is beginning to take its toll. "The people actually start to get tired," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP, the oil company responsible for cleaning up the spill. "We have to make sure they get the appropriate rest and rotate out."

The spill's environmental impact has widened significantly just in the past couple of days:

  • Federal officials doubled the area of the Gulf of Mexico where fishing is banned due to the spill. The ban takes a 46,000-square-mile chunk out of some of America's most productive coastal fishing grounds - and some experts say Gulf seafood may have to be tested for oil pollution for decades to come.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says a portion of the slick has reached the Gulf's Loop Current, entering an ocean circulation system that could carry oil to the Florida coastline and around to the Atlantic Seaboard.
  • Much of the oil has been broken up by dispersants, dropped onto the ocean from above or injected into the stream beneath the surface. But on Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said heavy oil made its first significant landfall in the state's coastal marshlands. "The day that we have all been fearing is upon us today," he told reporters. 

The situation started out as a localized tragedy on April 20, when a natural-gas explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers. The rig's fail-safe systems should have stopped any oil from leaking, but those systems didn't work. Now BP is trying a variety of strategies to contain the spill, as well as to reduce and eventually stop the leak.  

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are being added to the mess in the Gulf every day - and the impatience is mounting, particularly in Louisiana's coastal communities.

"We Americans are impatient as a rule, even us Cajuns," said oil-spill expert Ralph Portier, a Louisiana State University professor who hails from Bayou Petit Caillou. "We have a joie de vivre, but we also have a mind-set to go out and fix the damn thing."

If the spill drags on too much longer, coastal residents might start taking the matter into their own hands. Portier said there's talk of building mud or sand barriers to block incoming oil. "They want to physically put something down to keep it out of the marsh," he said. "Once you oil that habitat in a major way, you have a legacy of a spill that's going to be there for some time."

What's been learned?

For Portier and other scientists, the biggest lesson from the past 30 days was finding out how much they didn't know about the challenges of deep-sea drilling. "There are a lot of things we don't know, but at least now we know that we don't know," he said.

Ed Overton, a chemist at LSU who specializes in environmental monitoring, said the oil-spill response plans were "woefully inadequate" for dealing with an major oil leak a mile beneath the sea surface. "The first thing we learned is that we weren't prepared for a deep-water spill," he told me.

Experts disagree over how much oil is leaking, and they continue to debate the intensive use of dispersants. How toxic are those chemicals? Is breaking up the oil worth the risk? Overton said that debate "will probably last as long as you and I are talking about it."

Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine biologist who has been helping out Greenpeace, said "a lot of the damage that has occurred over this past month has been offshore and in the water column, and that's not the kind of place we're used to seeing." The spill is just now entering the phase where the effects are becoming visible onshore, he said.

"There's a lot about this spill that nobody has seen before," he said.

What's in store?

The developments of the past few days point to what's ahead: More of the leaked oil will start circulating in the Loop Current. In fact, Steiner said globs of subsurface oil "could already be in the Loop Current and traveling down the west coast of Florida."

Overton doesn't think having the oil spread around is necessarily a bad thing. "Concentrated oil is bad," he said. "Dispersed oil is not nearly as bad. Mother Nature can handle it."

Much is being made over tar balls that could eventually wash up on shores hundreds of miles from the site of the leak. Maybe too much, Overton said. "Tar balls are ultimately not dangerous," he said. "They might be unsightly, but you're not dealing with anything that's dangerous. A tar ball on Key West is not that big a deal. Now, I'm not on Key West, so it's easy for me to say that."

For Overton, the bigger concern is the oil creeping toward Louisiana's coastal marshlands. "It's not only damage to the critters that are there, it's loss of coastal habitat," he said. "It's a double-whammy along the coast of Louisiana."

The onset of hurricane season could bring on another kind of double-whammy. The spill response team says that the current stretch of calm weather has helped workers corral the oil with 1.8 million feet of containment booms. There haven't yet been any storms to drive the oil slick quickly toward the coast. The oil that is drifting toward the coast has had more of a chance to evaporate or degrade.

"That's the silver lining, if you will, around this tragedy," Portier said.

During the current stage of the crisis, then, bad weather is bad for the cleanup. But eventually, the right kind of bad weather could help beat down the slick, Overton suggested. "I wouldn't wish hurricanes on anybody, but a nice little tropical storm wouldn't be all that bad," he said.

What is to be done?

As the weeks roll on, the "human element" will become an increasingly important factor in sizing up the impact of the oil spill, Portier said. The fishing industry and the oil industry are important pillars of the economy and social fabric of coastal Louisiana. What will a long-running environmental crisis do to the region and its residents?

"The benchmark is probably Katrina," Portier told me. "The folks in the coastal zone, where I'm from, are intuitively, realistically and pragmatically looking at this as a slow-moving hurricane."

At least when a hurricane hits, you can be fairly certain that it will soon move on. Unfortunately, that's not the case here. "The fact that we have a never-ending spill, it's just a nightmare," Portier said. "If we had a finite spill, people would say, 'Oh well, act of God, take care of it, fix it up, move on.' What's unsettling about this is that we can't see the finish line."

The finish line could come into sight next week, when BP tries to plug up the top of the leaking oil well with heavy mud. Or it could take two or three months, when workers finish drilling a relief well and can plug up the line from below.

In the meantime, regulators and oil companies are talking about heading off future crises by rewriting the rules for offshore drilling.

Steiner said BP should have had all its well-stopping strategies ready to go "long before they had the blowout," rather than working them out only after the explosion. He noted, for example, that the Canadian government requires offshore oil ventures to drill a relief well during the same season that the exploratory well is drilled.

However, Steiner said merely tightening regulations for oil drilling won't be enough. In his view, the past month's troubles have provided "a clear view into the cost of oil." He said the White House and Congress shouldn't expand offshore drilling, but instead should lay the groundwork for an energy economy based on higher efficiency and renewable energy sources.

"If the only thing we fix in the wake of this Deepwater Horizon disaster is safety and regulatory oversight of offshore drilling, we've missed the transcendent lesson," he told me. "We've got to make the leap this time."

What do you think will happen in the next month, or the next year? What do you think should happen? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Past postings on the oil spill:

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