Gulf Coast

Fifty years ago:

In December 1970, an oil rig operated by Shell Oil exploded in the waters of Bay Marchand off the Louisiana coast, killing four workers, injuring 37 others and releasing what the federal government reported as 53,000 barrels of oil before the blown-out well was capped months later. But researchers who tracked the spill said it was 10 times that size and contaminated beaches as far away as Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. At the same time, the oil and gas industry explored deeper and deeper waters, drilling in 1,400 feet of water and heading toward depths of 2,000 feet. In 1972, scientists discovered the Gulf’s “dead zone,” an area so devoid of oxygen that it can’t support life. The problem? Supercharged algae, fueled by fertilizer and animal waste flushed from the vast Mississippi River basin, lives, dies and decomposes so rapidly that oxygen is essentially removed from the water.


Photo: Josh Haner, The New York Times

Photo: Josh Haner, The New York Times

In 2017, oil production in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-time high of 1.65 million barrels per day, a number that industry analysts expect will climb in 2018 and again in 2019. The record production comes within a decade of the largest marine oil spill ever – the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 that released 4.9 million barrels of oil over nearly four months. The damage from the spill topped $17 billion, and recent studies have shown that the spill reduced biodiversity in affected areas. Still, safety measures and environmental rules imposed in the wake of Deepwater Horizon are largely being undone. Meanwhile, the “dead zone” has grown to the size of Connecticut, impacting the shrimp and fishing industries and increasing harmful algae blooms that exacerbate the problem. And the Louisiana coast is losing a battle against sea-level rise that has already claimed more than 2,000 square miles of coastal landscape. Topics may include:

  • How BP’s fines for Deepwater Horizon are being spent.

  • The loss of historic indigenous and ethnic communities along the coast.

  • The state of safety and environmental rules around oil and gas drilling.

  • Gulf food webs and their impact on human consumption.

  • Climate resilience in hurricane country.

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