Undersea 'Manhattan' Grows From Gulf Oil Spill

As Congress probes further, oil's danger spreads unseen

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So, here’s the Gulf of Mexico oil situation after a weekend of struggles to stem the flood of oil, assessing where all the spilled oil has gone and what it’s doing, and preparing for the immediate future.

A whistleblower filed suit today against British Petroleum, hoping to halt BP’s drilling operation at another Gulf of Mexico offshore site. The reason: alleged failure to review engineering designs that could lead to an oil spill that could "dwarf" the one BP is dealing with now.>

The first political casualty of the Gulf oil spill is the top official overseeing offshore oil and gas drilling for the Minerals Management Service—the federal agency soon to be drastically reorganized because of its cozy relationship with the oil industry it is supposed to regulate.>

As British Petroleum shows some success in diverting oil from its ruptured well on the seabed, scientists have discovered vast plumes of undersea oil—one the size of Manhattan. The ecological implications are hard to grasp because it mostly is lurking out of sight. AP provides this:

The depth of the gushing leaks and the use of more than 560,000 gallons of chemicals to disperse the oil, including unprecedented injections deep in the sea, have helped keep the crude beneath the sea surface. Marine scientists say diffusing and sinking the oil helps protect the surface species and the Gulf Coast shoreline but increases the chance of harming deep-sea reefs.

"At first we had a lot of concern about surface animals like turtles, whales and dolphins," said Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi who studies Gulf reefs. "Now we’re concerned about everything."

No matter how damaging the spill ultimately proves, warns the New York Times, this country will continue its hunger for oil—and that means offshore drilling will continue. This scenario cannot change without a wholesale shift in energy policies stimulated by strong incentives by the federal government.

Speaking of the feds, more congressional hearings into the spill are scheduled this week, beginning today. The Interior Department and its policies on handling offshore oil drilling will be scrutinized. We can only hope they zero in on exploratory offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean planned to begin this summer by Shell Oil. The same flawed approval process that allowed BP to drill in the Gulf was used in granting a permit for Shell in the Arctic.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.