06.11.10

The Gulf's Next Disaster

The BP spill won’t be the last disaster pinned on offshore drilling. Dominique Browning says the area’s underwater pipelines are decaying rapidly—and could demolish the wetlands.

The BP Gulf oil gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep-sea drilling. But there is another, older story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP’s well is shut down. And to make matters worse, there’s another kind of terrible accident just waiting to happen.

The first offshore well was drilled in 14 feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business—which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Oil-industry maps show an astonishingly dense and complex thicket. Most of the pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands.

The infrastructure laid down to support the offshore drilling industry has severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.

Just as we have collapsing bridges in our highway system, so, too, we have a decaying infrastructure underwater. It is aging, and as the marsh erodes it uncovers pipelines never built to be exposed to water, let alone saltwater. Environmental Defense Fund Senior Director Paul Harrison describes an open meeting with the federal Council on Environmental Quality, where “an oil industry person got up and said he worries about the vulnerability of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline.”

Clive Irving: Why Is BP’s Former Boss a U.K. Hero?The LOOP carries about $1 billion worth of material every day. The cost of plugging canals, building diversions, and bringing river water into the wetlands, is small change by comparison—but the survival of the wetlands depends on it. Only the power of the Mississippi River can build land and keep up with sea level rise. That is why we need mega-scale restoration of this landscape. We cannot afford to let this work become an environmentalist’s pipe dream.

The Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper indicating that 31,000 miles of pipelines along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico are extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents. Previewed in Science Daily, it describes how, during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, sensors placed on the ocean floor, hundreds of feet deep, showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More than 1,000 reports of damage to pipelines in the Gulf have been made in the past two decades; more hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before another crisis erupts. Predictions are for a strong hurricane season this year.

Meanwhile, the vast oil infrastructure has already cost Louisiana dearly. Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Those thousands of miles of pipeline and canals—that infrastructure laid down to support the offshore drilling industry—have severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.

The Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment, no longer reaches and replenishes the Delta. The straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology—the water flow—of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.

And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.

The BP disaster will have severe economic consequences for everyone whose livelihood depends on those oil-soaked Gulf waters. But the far greater disaster is the one that has been years in the making. The next Gulf tragedy is waiting to happen.

The items below are previews describing action of currents on sea floor during hurricane.

Geophysical Research Letters: Bottom scour observed under Hurricane Ivan.

Geophysical Research Letters: Observed currents over the outer continental shelf during Hurricane Ivan.

Dominique Browning's new book is Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, & Found Happiness, published by Atlas & Co. She was the editor in chief of House & Garden and written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, O, Wired, Body + Soul, and On Topic. She writes a monthly column about environmental issues for the Environmental Defense Fund and blogs at SlowLoveLife.com