It is now officially two years post-spill and if you study the Gulf Coast’s horizon it’s not hard to spot lingering remnants of the nightmare many predicted in the near aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
As that deep gusher of crude oil spewed for nearly three months, the immediate impact on the region and concerns for its future were all anyone along the Gulf could talk about.
As we have detailed in the last few days, marine life along the Gulf is still struggling (dolphins are washing up dead, coral is still coated with an oozy gunk, shrimp are pulled up laden with oil) and thousands of local residents—especially cleanup workers—are suffering ill effects from exposure to chemicals in the water and air.
The future of the Gulf’s fishermen hangs in the balance too...fish stocks have not returned to pre-spill numbers.
Within days of the spill in April 2010, I interviewed dozens of Gulf Coast residents who were literally in shock. Intellectually they knew that rules and regulations were often skirted on the rigs, but they had no idea something so tragic to both the workers and the environment could happen in their backyard.
At the time, many of them went so far as to predict the “end of fishing” along the coast, rightfully concerned that the oil then gushing into the Gulf would kill off not just fish and man, but local economies, including commercial and sport fishing, oil exploration, and all of the support businesses too, from boat builders to divers, restaurants to supermarkets.
In 2012, it would seem the worst of those scenarios have at least been forestalled. (Unless of course you are one of those made sick by the spill and are still desperately seeking a cure and very probably a job.)
There are still a lot of unknowns about the spill’s long-term impact: Sixty percent of the five million barrels of crude oil is officially “unaccounted” for. Where did it go? Tar mats are still buried under the sand and in coastal marshes, and occasionally surface with new currents and winds. And the impact of putting those 1.8 million gallons of dispersant into the ocean is still being explored.
The future of the Gulf’s fishermen hangs in the balance too; the Commercial Fishermen of America estimates the impact in Luoisiana alone could top $2.5 billion, since fish stocks have not returned to pre-spill numbers and the future remains uncertain. Its estimates include job losses of nearly 4,000 and income drops for those who stick with it.
In April 2010 Tracy Kuhns, cofounder of the Association of Family Fisherman, told me she envisioned the spill ending commercial fishing as a future for her kids…and her grandkids. Today she’s still not convinced the industry will ever come back. “I am worried about the younger generation and the people with young families. But even the older guys are having a hard time—what else are they going to do at this age? Is our way of life going to be over forever?”
Yet visit any of the port towns along the Gulf, from the Florida Panhandle to western Louisiana, and it would seem that economies have survived the moratorium on drilling, the shutdown of the fishing waters, and the bad publicity that traveled around the world scaring off tourists.
Part of the recovery, of course, has been aided by the hundreds of millions of dollars BP has pumped into the local economy in lieu of fines and penalties (a number expected to grow whenever the company is assessed a per-gallon fine by the EPA). In Louisiana alone, BP has paid out more than $1.9 billion to nearly 70,000 businesses and individuals. The company has promised another $1 billion to be put directly into coastal restoration in the four most-impacted states, including rebuilding marshes, dunes and oyster beds.
Unemployment across the region is the same it was two years ago (7 percent) and the oil exploration business is back and booming (73 permits for new deepwater wells have been issued since the moratorium was lifted in October 2010).
Here are some economic realities reported along the coast, two years after the spill:
- Charter boat owners in Venice, Louisiana, once the state’s busiest port for visiting sports fishermen, say business is steady but not as consistent as they were pre-spill.
- Commercial fishermen, especially oystermen, have seen both production and demand diminish. Smaller harvests may be linked to all the fresh water that was released from the Mississippi River as a way to keep oil-saturated seawater at bay; lower demand is most likely because the public outside the area is still cautious about buying Gulf seafood.
- Off the coast of Florida oystermen are blaming overfishing rather than pollution on decreases in numbers, suggesting that a post-spill panic allowed beds to be “raped” with little thought about the future.
- New federal safety regulations for the oil rigs, which were put in place post-spill, have yet to be tested. New rules say all operators must prove they can deal with a worst-case blowout, that wells and casings must have stronger designs, and that deepwater rig operators must be better trained. But most of the new laws are self-policed and so far, knock on wood, have not been tested. But given that new rigs are coming on line every month, it’s likely they will be again.
- State tourism boards and operators along the Alabama and Florida coasts, thanks to aggressive advertising campaigns, are reporting better numbers than before the spill. Ironically there is strong suspicion that one of the lures to new visitors has been the nationwide ad campaign launched and paid for by BP to try to “pretty” up the region’s image. What some see as green washing, others apparently view as successful travel brochure promotion of the so-called Redneck Riviera.
The one economic reality governing any boom in the region’s economy is that nationwide demand for oil has not slowed, but picked up since April 2010. And as long as we continue to demand inexpensive oil, companies will keep drilling, deeper and deeper, and accidents will happen.
Two years after the spill, what is the lasting image you take away from America's worst environmental disaster?