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Leon Kaye headshot

Oil Companies Are Downplaying Spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard Data Reveals

By Leon Kaye

Seven years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people, spilled almost 5 million barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, and demolished the reputation of an energy company and its CEO, the evidence suggests that oil companies operating in the region continue to downplay their impact on local ecosystems and communities.

Three Louisiana environmental organizations – DisasterMap.net, 350 Louisiana and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade – say there were 479 offshore oil accidents in the Gulf of Mexico last year. That amounts to about nine accidents a week. And 94 accidents were publicly reported during a particularly troublesome three-week period last fall.

The three groups worked together to cull publicly-available data from the U.S. Coast Guard. Those images were then evaluated by West Virginia-based SkyTruth, which estimated the volume of oil lost based on each spill's sheen.

The results often revealed a huge discrepancy between what these companies reported and analysts’ assessment of the volume of oil lost to accidents and leakage.

Last June, for example, one suspected oil spill attributed to Taylor Energy was reported to release only 550 gallons of oil (“only,” of course, being a relative term). But according to SkyTruth, the size of the sheen -- approximately 5.5 miles by 21.5 miles -- suggested a spill of over 80,000 gallons of crude oil.

This research corroborates other reports from the past several years which accused multiple energy companies of doing little to stop their wells from continuing to leak oil in the Gulf, including an investigation published by Wired in December.

But curtailing these leaks is complicated, as enforcement of offshore drilling violations is often lax. Furthermore, Taylor Energy -- frequently mentioned in the Louisiana groups' report -- is bankrupt, and several press reports say it only has one full-time employee, which makes any action on leaking wells attributed to that company highly unlikely.

The groups concluded that most of the 2016 accidents occurred near the Bird’s Foot Delta and Grand Isle along the Mississippi River – the latter of which is noted for its shrimping industry, a sector that suffered during and after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana is in the midst of approving a multimillion-dollar coastal master plan that seeks to restore many of the habitats that are constantly affected by pollution and oil-drilling accidents. In these organizations’ view, if such investment goes forward as planned, local and federal authorities should take more action to ensure more accidents do not happen again.

The impact of the oil industry’s operations in the Gulf Mexico reach beyond the question of how much oil is being spilled and who will be responsible for cleaning it all up. For these Louisiana nonprofits, the close to 900,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf last year tell another story: Climate change is already having an impact on the state’s coasts, oil spills only make things worse for ecosystems and industry, and far more action is needed to ensure that all industries and businesses dependent on the Gulf of Mexico can thrive.

So far, the outlook is not encouraging. DisasterMap.net estimates that Louisiana’s statewide temperature was 2.25 degrees warmer than normal last year; the organization also concluded that the state lost an estimated 13 square miles of land during 2016 as well.

Image credit: Deepwater Horizon Response/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye