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oil

<Editor's Note: Our newest blogger, Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman-Lados, compiled this report.>

The response to the oil spill in the Gulf has exposed fundamental flaws in the current system for regulating the use of chemical dispersants. Since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, BP has added nearly two million gallons of dispersants to the waters of the Gulf.

For nearly 90 days, oil from the BP spill has been plaguing the Gulf of Mexico. The oily wound left by an explosion that killed 11 rig workers on the Deepwater Horizon platform has now bled as much as 180 million gallons of crude oil into our waters.

It's almost hard to believe, but a few hours ago, the flow into the Gulf finally stopped. BP installed a 75-ton cap that—for the time being—is preventing any more crude from escaping. This is a hopeful sign, but given how much has gone wrong with previous efforts to stem the flow, we're clearly not out of the woods yet. Additionally, the cap, even if it holds, is only a temporary solution. Two relief wells, expected to be complete sometime in August, are the only method for plugging the spill for good.

The fact that oil has stopped leaking is nonetheless a significant and welcome development. We're hopeful that the cap will hold and that the ever-expanding spill has finally reached its maximum. But reports today that hundreds of oiled pelicans and terns have turned up in Louisiana's largest seabird nesting area are a sad reminder of the extensive damage already caused by the spill. Gulf residents, businesses, wildlife, and ecosystems will take a long time to recover from this tragedy, and they need our support in the process of rebuilding.
 

Under the federal Toxics Substances Control Act, chemical manufacturers are required to submit health and safety studies to the EPA. Other federal law requires manufacturers of the oil dispersants being used by BP to submit data on the toxicity and effectiveness of the dispersants.

Earthjustice went to court today representing the Gulf Restoration Network and the Florida Wildlife Federation to get that information.

The Obama administration, having been thwarted in its attempts to declare a six-month moratorium on new deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday issued a new moratorium order, citing new information on the causes of the recent well blowout and other matters. According to a question-and-answer news release from the department:

"What are the differences between the May 28 deepwater drilling moratorium and the new deepwater drilling suspension?

New Spill Total Estimate
Government estimates released today now put the total oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico at somewhere between 89 million and 176 million gallons. Seems like a pretty large range to us. For comparison, and to give you perspective on how big this environmental disaster has become, the Exxon Valdez spilled just 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound in Alaska.

New Cap Being Lowered into Place
Over the weekend, a team of robots removed the old cap, cleaned up the site, and prepared for the installation of a new 150,000-pound metal cap over the leaking well. The well may still leak with this new cap, but BP claims they will be able to funnel more oil to ships on the surface.

A permanent fix may still be more than a month off when the relief wells can reach the original well and hopefully plug the hole from the inside with drilling mud and cement.

<Update 7/9: The 5th Circuit Appeals Court decided not to intervene on an emergency basis - and reinstate the administration's moratorium on offshore drilling - unless deepwater drilling is actually going to resume, reports Patti Goldman, vice-president of litigation for Earthjustice. The shoe is now on the oil industry's foot. If they choose to resume drilling, they risk another quick trip to the 5th Circuit.>

<Update 7/8: A 3-panel appeals court has refused to reinstate a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of California.>

The immediate future of deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is at stake today in a federal appeals court, where Earthjustice and the Obama administration are arguing to reinstate a moratorium put in place after the BP oil well rupture. Oil industry advocates convinced a federal district court to lift the moratorium last month.

With oil gushing into the Gulf at an estimated 2.4 million gallons a day, our argument for the moratorium should be obvious—we can't afford this kind of risky drilling until the BP oil spill is fully quelled and we know exactly why this devastating incident occurred. We already know that the approval process for the BP well and others in the Gulf was corrupted by a too-cozy relationship between the oil industry and regulatory agencies, especially the Minerals Management Service.

Until the government can clean up its regulatory act, and the industry shows that it can clean up—and prevent—major oil spills, we will continue to argue against resumption of deep water drilling. And let's be clear—the moratorium only affects a small number of drilling operations in the Gulf. The vast majority continue to operate and are not affected by this court action.

If the appeals court refuses to lift the moratorium, the Interior Department said it will institute a revised, new moratorium in short order.

<Update 7/6: High seas have disrupted testing of the "A Whale" oil skimmer, the Coast Guard reports.>

<Update 7/1: Speaking of whales, a number of whale sharks have been spotted in the oil spill area, which is particularly bad for them, as they are plankton eaters—meaning they sieve the oil-laden waters. The species is among six described as most threatened by the spill, according to AOL. Other species listed are sea turtles, bluefin tuna, sperm whales, dolphins and brown pelicans.>

A record described as "notorious" in a USA Today headline is being reached today in the Gulf of Mexico as BP's oil spill tops the estimated 140-million-gallon mark. The previous record Gulf spill was 139 million gallons in the 1979 spill off Mexico's coast—but it took a year of gushing to get there. BP's spill has been gushing from its blown-out well since April 20 at up to 2.4 million gallons a day.

Even as that unhappy record is being achieved, the federal government has brought on scene the latest attempt to clean up the oil. A monster skimmer ship—3 1/2 football fields long and 10 stories high and named the "A Whale"—chugged in today, especially equipped to skim as much as 21 million gallons of oiled water per day—if the EPA gives the go ahead. The ship has never been tested.

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About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.