Learning from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

by Anna Cavallo
Associate Editor

BP_oil_spill_still_may_11_1240pm_E Oil flowing out of the deepwater wellhead on May 11, 2010

Ever since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, I’ve been a little torn. I find the actual and potential effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico so heart-wrenching that I can only handle so much information about it at a time. I turn off the news or stop reading halfway through an article. And yet I want to know more, I want to understand it, so I keep checking news updates daily. I keep searching for more pieces of the puzzle.

I have never known all that much about oil drilling, on land or offshore. (As far as I know, it’s not a huge industry here in the Upper Midwest.) In my curiosity I’ve revisited information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and am baffled to find that despite twenty-one years of astonishing technological advancement since then, the 2010 oil spill is being contained and cleaned up with many of the same methods: burning, spraying chemical dispersants, laying boom. Perhaps we now have a better understanding of the natural biodegradation of oil 100617-G-7444G-004 VOOthat bacteria and fungi on coastlines can provide. But clearly, if oil is going to continue to be shipped globally and drilled from the distant depths of the ocean, we have some more learning to do.

June 17 – Workers in the Vessels of Opportunity Program replace boom in Caminada Bay, in Port Fourchon, La., to prevent oil from reaching nearby marshes

I suppose if there’s any good in this disaster, it’s the education and action that it’s prompting. Most urgently, we need the top scientific minds, lawmakers, and leaders in the oil business to figure out how to better prevent disasters and respond quickly enough to avoid serious environmental damage. We need them to continue developing viable alternatives for tar ball dauphinisland ALenergy production. But we also need a collective understanding of oil and where it comes from, how we get it, how it’s processed and used to power our daily lives—as well as the damage it can do, and other energy options.

Tar ball about 6 inches wide that washed up
on Dauphin Island, Alabama

To educate yourself and your students, check out a few relevant titles Lerner has published in recent years. Fossil Fuels (Early Bird Earth Science, 2008) is a great introduction to the basics of oil, coal, and natural gas. Earth-Friendly Energy and Protecting Earth’s Water Supply (Saving Our Living Earth, 2009) explore how we can be responsible citizens of the planet in the ways we generate and use energy and care for Earth’s water. Environmental Disasters (Disasters Up Close, 2008) gives a graphic glimpse of the devastation of past disasters, from oil spills to nuclear accidents. And for more information and visuals of the cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico spill, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Wellhead photo: Wikimedia Commons; Boom photo: US Coast Guard; Tar ball photo: National Ocean Service/NOAA