Sylvia Earle, acclaimed oceanographer and aquanaut, testified May 19 before the U.S. Congress Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as an expert on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Earle told the panel that "just about everybody on earth will be affected, one way or another, by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico." Earle's expertise on oil spills comes from her stint as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency responding to the Exxon Valdez and Mega Borg oil spills, as well as extensive involvement with evaluation of the environmental consequences of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf spill.
In a May 19 article, "Sylvia Earle to U.S. Congress: Cheap Oil is Costing the Earth,” National Geographic, David Braun writes that in her address to the Congressional panel, Dr. Earle lamented the lack of technology to send Coast Guard, NOAA and other experts to the source of the oil gushing into the ocean, 5,000 feet beneath the surface. "How can we not know how much oil is being released?" she asked. "We are dealing from the surface with what is largely a subsea problem."
Dr. Earle also stated that "The technical expertise mustered to stop the flow of oil is the best in the world, but since those talented engineers were not required to focus on adequately dealing with such problems well in advance, the make-in-up-as-they-go-along solutions sound precarious, at best. Jamming a metal top hat over the leak? Threading a mile-long straw into a torrent of toxic fluid? Stuffing garbage down the hole?"
Meanwhile the business world's concern is with a sharp decrease in the valuation of BP stock and the high costs of attempting to plug the gulf oil leak. According to Brian Swint and Eduard Gismatullin in a Bloomberg Business World article today (June 1), BP Plunges After Attempt to Plug Gulf Oil Leak Fails (Update1), BP has abandoned their attempt to plug a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst spill in U.S. history. Swint and Gismatullin reported that the company said on May 29 a “top kill” attempt to plug the leak using heavy fluids and debris had failed. They wrote that it rules out stopping the flow of oil from the well until relief drilling is completed in August.
However, BP has said that it will now try to contain the spill by fitting a pipe over the leak later this week to bring the oil to a drillship on the surface. However, they're not holding out much hope that this attempt will succeed. In a statement to the press, BP announced, “All of these operations, including the cutting of the riser, are complex, involve risks and uncertainties, and have to be carried out by remote-operated vehicles at 5,000 feet under water.” BP said in the statement. The techniques “have never before been deployed at these depths and conditions, and their efficiency and ability to contain the oil and gas cannot be assured.”
Sylvia Earle, who has actually explored the bottom of the sea in the Gulf of Mexico using deep sea submersibles, has urged the immediate deployment of subsurface technologies and sensors "to evaluate the fate of the underwater plumes of oil, as well as the finely dispersed oil and chemicals and their impact on floating surface forests of Sargassum communities, life in the water column, and on the sea floor."
Earle warned the Committee that the thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants that make the ocean look a little better on the surface--where most people are--actually make circumstances a lot worse under the surface, where most of the life in the ocean actually is.
"The instructions for humans using Corexit, the dispersant approved by the EPA to make the ocean look better warn that it is an eye and skin irritant, is harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed, and may cause injury to red blood cells, kidney or the liver. People are warned not to take Corexit internally, but the fish, turtles, copepods and jellies have no choice. They are awash in a lethal brew of oil and butoxyethanol."
Earle called for a halt on the subsurface use of dispersants, while limiting surface use to strategic sites where other methods cannot safeguard critically important coastal habitats. She also urged an immediate deployment of subsurface technologies and sensors "to evaluate the fate of the underwater plumes of oil, as well as the finely dispersed oil and chemicals and their impact on floating surface forests of Sargassum communities, life in the water column, and on the sea floor."
In a Dahr Jamail Dispatch May 30, an award-winning journalist for his Mid-East coverage, wrote that he is teaming up with Mark Manning, award-winning filmmaker and commercial diver of 20 years, whose in-depth insight into the world of offshore oil operations will help them produce print and documentary film coverage of the causes and consequences of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Jamail wrote that the “top kill” fix for the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico had failed. He analyzed the environmental catastrophe as already being the largest oil leak in U.S. history, even at conservative estimates well over the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Jamail further stated, “Higher estimates show that as much as one Exxon Valdez load of oil is being released into the Gulf every two days, and now it looks as though the volcano gushing oil into the Gulf may not be stopped until August."
Jamail is writing about topics that are not currently being addressed in news and media coverage of the leak, such as the fact that despite all fluid crude oil spills meeting the criteria of classification as a toxic chemical spill, they still are not classified as such, even though it would entirely change the framework of the crisis Other points he makes are that oil containment systems do not work in standard ocean sea states, i.e. they do not work in ocean oil spills such as this and that even if the leak were to be halted today, the environmental impact on local communities and eco-systems will last generations and that the robotic vehicles now being used to control and salvage the well head are not designed for such work.
Dr. Sylvia Earle also implored Congress to invest in new technologies to effectively explore, monitor and safeguard the ocean loom large on the short list of recommended actions to address this crisis, coupled with the ongoing support to keep them in operation. She stated that the fleet of U. S. submersibles, ROVs and AUVs presently available for scientific research and ocean care is more than pathetic -- It is scandalous.
Earle stated that The Alvin, after more than 40 years of productive service, is soon to be retired and her replacement is far from complete. The two Johnson-sea-link submersibles that have yielded priceless information and insights about the nature of the Gulf and the ocean beyond are no longer being supported at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. Earle added that only Japan, Russia, France, and now China have manned subs that can go to half the ocean's depth, and the new Alvin is expected to go only two and a half miles.
Perhaps an international response is called for... maybe Japan, Russia, France and China could send their manned subs that can descend to such depths to supervise deepsea efforts to stop this spill instead of trying to use inadequate robots. Dr. Earle encourage tri-national collaboration among scientists and institutions around the Gulf, but I'd suggest that we take it a step further and address this spill with international collaboration among scientists, institutions and governments around the world. It is truly a planetary problem that is neither the sole concern of BP or the United States as it affects the viability of everyone’s future.
Dr. Earle also proposed mobilizing good minds to address solutions, such as the Gulf of Mexico Summit five years ago that helped launch a regional governance body of U.S. and Mexican states. Earle also said, "A new summit is being planned by the Harte Research Institute to take place later this year to address next steps to assure an economically and ecologically healthy Gulf of Mexico."
So how is the President of the U.S. responding to the crisis? Obama released a statement May 29, “Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us. It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking.” He might be well advised to put Sylvia Earle in charge of the U.S. response to the oil spill, making her our "Ocean Czar". Better yet, why not form a planetary commission immediately to rally global resources to formulate effective strategies to contain the oil spill before the hurricane season complicates further efforts?