Gulf of Mexico: Oily Affairs

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) is a Mediterranean-type sea, and the eleventh largest body of water in the world.  It’s about as large as the area between New York City and Birmingham, Alabama.  It would take you 14.3 hours to drive end to end, at 65 miles per hour, if it were a land body.  The oil pumped out of the GOM (and captured) sucks out the gasoline to drive a car that distance in less than a tiny fraction of a second. In fact, you could drive to the equator on the amount of gas you’d get from the GOM in 3.9 seconds.

Birds, fish, turtles, and other marine mammals are referred to as “motile resources,”  to those who study the area for the U.S. gov’t.  The more we look into the deepest part of the GOM, the more fascination we have with what we find.  This octopus is equally interested in the equipment we use to study life down there.  Expansive deepwater coral habitats have only recently been discovered and studied in the GOM.

It is also a focus of archeological research into Paleo-Indian remains.

We have divided the “deep water” areas of the GOM into 21 sections, and outlined, in the sections we know about, which areas have to be left alone, and which can be drilled.  Oil and gas rigs are  huge floating platform structures on the water that form “the largest de facto artificial reef system in the world.” That’s because when oil companies are finished with these huge structures, they sink them.  Drainage into the Gulf of Mexico is extensive, and includes 20 major river systems covering over 3.8 million square kilometers of the continental United States (Moody, 1967). Annual freshwater inflow to the Gulf is approximately 10.6×1011 m3 per year (280 trillion gallons). 85% of this flow comes from the United States, with 64% originating from the Mississippi River alone.  You can also call it the largest garbage dump in America. Even before the recent Deepwater crisis,  agricultural waste is flowing in from the Mississippi River at such an alarming rate that it continues to create “dead zones.”  “The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” and all of that.

Water enters the Gulf through the Yucatan Strait, circulates as the Loop Current, and exits through the Florida Strait eventually forming the Gulf Stream. Portions of the Loop Current often break away forming eddies or ‘gyres’ which affect regional current patterns.  Think of the GOM as a Jacuzzi, that has a deeper center.  We tend to think about the deepest parts of the seas like a desert, but in fact, it has a broader array of fauna than the shallower parts.  They’ve learned how to adjust to living without light.  The deepest sections also collect carbon garbage that could well impact things like animal mating seasons that are controlled by seasonal carbon levels.  In the old days, when ships were made of wood and sank, scavengers and wood borers made quick work out of eating them at very deep levels.  Don’t ask me what the new “sunking ships” are made of because they aren’t “ships” at all, but oil and gas rig “platforms” and we’re sinking them on purpose when we’re finished with them.  “Artificial reef systems,” indeed.

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the GOM.

The largest, Petronius, measures 64 meters (210 ft) by 43 meters (141 ft) or 29,626 sq. ft for each of its 2 decks, or approximately 24 multi-storied McMansions.  For all that nature stuff, the GOM is really a natural gas and oil field disguised as an ocean.

While scientists tell us that oil “seeps” exist, and can actually be larger than any man-made disaster,  it appears to happen slowly enough so that oil-eating fauna grow up around the cracks in the ocean floor and consume it.  What remains of the seepage is initially the methane and hydrocarbons that float and evaporate into the air, and the remaining residual sinks to the ocean’s bottom.

Man-made spills take a long time to disappear.  There are many theories why, but, for example, the Exxon Valdez Oil disaster is still hanging around 20 years later.  One theory is that micro-organisms may need other nutrients to be able to consume the oil and may not be getting enough nitrogen, phosphorus or oxygen in order to do that. Or, perhaps, a layer or sort of “skin” may have developed around the oil patches, making them impenetrable by the micro-organisms. It might also be the cold climate.  And the oil today  “…is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

When we really poison our ecosystem massively, we create “massive mortalities,” but there are also “sub-lethal effects” that are harder to blame on one toxic polluter.  For the 75,000 dolphins that live in the GOM, we’re arguing about whether that oil dumping is killing them quickly or slowly, or if its the oil killing them at all.  The six dead dolphins that showed up on the shore could be “unrelated” to the oil spill, because dead dolphin show up there this time of year. 
Kill “Flipper” and you have a major media fiasco on top of a major media fiasco on your hands.  People, unfortunately for BP, don’t usually get headaches this time of year, so they can blame the headaches on the oil smells.

And can we really believe that only now have scientists just thought to look under the water for signs of oil?

Framing this disaster as only impacting tourism and fisheries is as crazy as any of the following:

  • To family who’s dog has died:  “Sorry to hear about that, Jill, especially after you just wasted $25 buying that 30 lb bag of dog food.”
  • To husband who’s wife just died:  “Geepers, Frank, I guess if you want sex anytime soon, you’ll have to hit the bars like the rest of us.”
  • To Tsunami survivors:  “Look at it this way, Ploy, you won’t have to worry about washing your rugs now.”
  • To tornado survivors:  “Hey, it might be a blessing in disguise.  What about that town that lost everything, and is now building “green?”

And we are so desperate for good news, that a story in the Wall Street Journal, reported by some “unidentified person” about the success of some “tube insertion” is being widely circulated.  Even BP wouldn’t verified that one, given that top hats and shredded tennis balls didn’t work.

We’re dropping dispersant called Corexit 9500 and Corexit EC9527A, also known as deodorized kerosene.  But wait!  Isn’t kerosene made from hydrocarbons?  Fight fire with fire!!!

With respect to marine toxicity and potential human health risks, studies of kerosene exposures strongly indicate potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.

That’s a quote from a lawyer representing the United Fishermen’s Association and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), among others (because dolphins don’t write checks).  He continues: “Additionally, I have considered marine species which surface for atmospheric inhalation such as sea turtles, dolphins and other species which are especially vulnerable to aspiration toxicity of Corexit 9500 into the lung while surfacing.”  He just said that because Flipper died.  But hey, the good news is that the oil “spill” didn’t kill them.
Besides, you guys, Corexit is made by Nalco, and they were once jointly owned by Exxon and BP, so you know it has to be good. The CEO’s have even strongly endorsed their product over a less harmful alternative by claiming emphatically it’s “pretty effective.” It was made by oil companies for oil companies, which is more than you can say for the competition. Dispersit is half as toxic, but when it’s produced by some no-name U.S. Polychemical Corp, how can you be sure you are doing the right thing when you are dumping 60,000 gallons a day? Okay, so cleanup workers suffered health problems afterward, including blood in their urine and assorted kidney and liver disorders, but that was the old formula. Hey guys, when are you going to learn to trust? Now, Nalco is owned by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, the international water treatment specialist, providing “pay as you drink” water services in over 100 countries. They not only can pollute the water, they can clean it too. They are the second largest manager of municipal systems in the United States.

If tube inserts don’t work, nuke the pipe (and everything in the GOM).  Hey, it worked for the Russians, didn’t it?  Meanwhile, President O. scares us all when he threatens: “I will not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility.” That should snap BP execs to their senses.  Are TPTB losing it, or not?  As the excellent, soon to be released comedy “How to Boil A Frog” has said, “It’s a war against nature because nature does not care!”

Yes, we’ll keep drilling down there, and anywhere else we can find a drop of the black stuff, and yes, we’ll continue to have major messes that will never make headline news if it isn’t in wealthier (for now) countries where we take things like eating fish and seafood and vacationing on pristine beaches very seriously.  But, because oil companies are going to have to conjure up crisis-cost containment, not to mention funding a PR miracle, they will make sure we’ll be paying a lot more for it.

Perhaps the best any of us can do is say NIMBY again and again to drilling, and to tons of tankers floating by us carrying crude, or any other effort to frame what just happened in the GOM as “unfortunate but unavoidable.”  Car-pool, if you have to, but bring out your boats, schooners, mini-yahts (you too, D.O.) and row-boats and float along shouting “We love the oil in our tanks, but on the sea it’s wicked RANK!”  I’ll be there, in British Columbia, shouting on a schooner, you can betcha, because I love shellfish, beaches, and Flipper too.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. Answer found! Huffington Post says: “Nalco Energy Services of Sugar Land, Texas, can deliver as much as 75,000 gallons of dispersants a day for the massive environmental clean-up.”

    Isn’t it nice how the make a French conglomerate sound so local?

    And in case you were wondering, Huffington also tells us that “3 million gallons of oil and refined petroleum are spilled annually in around U.S. waters, mostly in smaller batches”

    “Dispersants are not the silver bullet,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said. And unfortunately: …the company’s disclosure statement says, “No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product.” and this one’s the kicker: However, it’s disquieting that the “material safety data sheet” for Corexit 9500 warns: “Do not contaminate surface water.” That would be funny if it weren’t true.

    Also, the document says, “Component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate.” That’s a big word for the fact that the chemical accumulates in tissues of a fish or other organism to levels greater than that in the surrounding medium (environment). Poor Flipper. Poor us!

  2. Rebecca says:

    The GOM is “my” ocean. I have stood on the strand at Gulf Shores and looked out across bright blue water that stretches forever. I have watched the sun rise and set over the water. I’ve picked up shells along that beach, and tossed star fish back in, and watched dolphins play in the water and hermit crabs scuttle along the sand.

    And it is all going to die. The amount of oil already spilled is going to turn large sections -if not all -of the Gulf into one large dead zone. Oil is going to be washing up for years. One hurricane and oil is going to be brought miles inland. I’m a 7 hour drive from the beach and we’re concerned about how much oil could potentially be carried and dumped on us by the next storm.

    People are getting more and more angry, particularly the fishermen and shrimpers whose lives are ruined. It’s not safe for BP executives to show up in certain areas anymore -there are calls for them to be tarred, feathered, and hung from the lampposts on Canal Street in New Orleans.

    This is just getting worse and worse. The ecological disaster is devastating, and the entire economies of several states may just collapse in a chain reaction due to this.

    And no one seems to care. The BP stations in town are doing business as brisk as ever. It’s unbelievable.

  3. searoemer says:

    The top kill procedure will stop the gusher. How do I know this? Well oil engineers have been saying this for weeks and the only question has been why didn’t BP do it sooner? The other reason I know top kill will work is that President Obama has scheduled a visit to the Guld Coast for tommorow and I can’t imagine him exposing himself to the ridicule a failed top kill would create. He has been told it will work so now he can fly in and take credit for wise leadership!

    Lets face it BP is run by number crunchers. They invested lots of money drilling this well and they figured they could spend lots of money cleaning it up and paying fines. When the cost of the gusher became more then the cost of clean up and fines they figured they would not lose money by sealing the well.

    If the numbers could talk they would tell you that any fool would say iy only makes sense to drill at 5000 feet if you drill two wells at the same time so that one well could be uswed to shut it down if the blow out preventer failed. But this had no cost benefit so the blokes in charge nixed the idea.

    Obama and BP are frauds but they are part of the spectacle we need for our identity.


  1. says:

    Gulf of Mexico: Oily Affairs – Peak Oil Blues

  2. adelaide hills b…

    Gulf of Mexico: Oily Affairs – Peak Oil Blues

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