More than 20 US oil spills since May go virtually unreported

Wired.com published a piece Thursday highlighting the lack of media attention that “small” oil spills receive, pointing specifically to Royal Dutch Shell’s flowline leak in May which released at least 88,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a “slick” 13 miles wide.

As a result of the spill’s remote location — 97 miles off the coast of Louisiana — the environmental impact is relatively unknown and leakage volume is difficult to determine.  Oil companies are legally responsible for estimating the total amount of spillage, which is verified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but exact figures could take years to determine.

Moreover, the production companies have a vested interest in keeping the volume estimates as low as possible, because the U.S. government appropriates fines on a per gallon basis — $1,100 if found negligent, $4,300 if grossly negligent.

In addition, spills under 100,000 gallons aren’t subject to the same government scrutiny, but receive less clean-up funding.

“Because of the way the spill occurred and because of the lack of infrastructure, there was no scientific sampling at first, so there’s no way to verify what the degree of impact . . . to wildlife was,” said Ian McDonald, a Florida State oceanographer who observed the spill site by air on May 15. “We saw pelagic fish, some seabirds, a pod of porpoises, a beaked whale mother and calf surfacing in and out of the floating oil, schools of fish nearby under the oil.”

Ultimately, spills far off the coast are contained with booms that surround the oil slick, which is then skimmed to scoop up the oil-water mixture.  84,000 gallons of “oily water” was reportedly removed from Shell’s Gulf spill, although some environmentalists contend that the technique only isolates about 20 percent of oil on the surface.

If both figures are accurate, Shell’s original spillage estimate is short by more than 300,000 gallons.

Worse for environmentalists and ocean-life, according to NOAA Emergency Response Division supervisor Doug Helton, the Gulf spill on May 12 is “just one of 20-plus we’ve worked on in the last month.”

regulatory step was taken by the Department of the Interior in April to limit future spills by proposing new standards for blowout preventers — valves mounted on top of oil wells used to keep crude from spewing uncontrollably into the air or water in the case of a sub-surface explosion.

However, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported on April 13 that a “culture of minimal regulatory compliance continues to exist in the Gulf of Mexico and risk reduction continues to prove elusive.”

Among those fighting more regulation from Washington, D.C., is the American Petroleum Institute, which projects that new regulations would cost the industry an estimated $31.8 billion and the loss of 50,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

 

[Wired] [Reuters] [The Guardian]