(by James Eng, msnbc.com) – The oil leak triggered by a deadly rig blast off the coast of Louisiana has the potential to cause more environmental damage than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, one of the largest ecological disasters ever recorded, some observers say.

“As it is now, it’s already looking like this could be the worst oil spill since the Valdez,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, told msnbc.com on Thursday.

“It’s quite possible this will end up being worse than the Valdez in terms of environmental impact since it seems like BP will be unable to cap the spill for months. In terms of total quantity of oil released, it seems this will probably fall short of Exxon Valdez. But because of the habitat, the environmental impact will be worse.”

“Probably the only thing comparable to this is the Kuwait fires [following the Gulf War in 1991],” Mike Miller, head of Canadian oil well fire-fighting company Safety Boss, told the BBC World Service.

“The Exxon Valdez is going to pale in comparison to this as it goes on.”

The spill was triggered by an explosion last week off the Louisiana coast that sank an oil rig operated by BP. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead.

So far the leak from a blown-out well 5,000 feet under the sea is not nearly as big as the Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound 21 years ago. BP’s well is spewing about 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the ocean, the Coast Guard estimates.

But if the leak is not capped, millions of gallons of oil could spill into the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental impact could be disastrous if the oil reaches the ecologically fragile U.S. coastline.

Potential for catastrophe
“If we lose the integrity of that wellhead, it could be a catastrophic spill,” Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, which is directing efforts to contain the spreading spill, told The Miami Herald’s editorial board Wednesday. …..

Experts said the spill could also destroy the livelihood of commercial fishermen and shrimp catchers and impact recreational fishermen. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the state’s fishing industry is worth $265 billion at dockside and has a total economic impact of $2.3 trillion.

Tourism also could take a blow if beaches are fouled.

Already, a federal class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of two commercial shrimpers from Louisiana seeking at least $5 million in compensatory damages plus an unspecified amount of punitive damages against Transocean, BP and other companies linked to the rig blast.

Louisiana opened a special shrimp season along parts of the coast to allow shrimpers to harvest the profitable white shrimp before the spill reaches the area.

Which way the wind blows
Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill contaminated more than 1,200 miles of shoreline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals. More than $2 billion has been spent on cleanup and recovery, and Exxon has paid at least $1 billion in damages. …..

James Opaluch, a professor of natural-resource economics at the University of Rhode Island, has studied more than a dozen oil spills, including the Exxon Valdez. He said the severity of the environmental consequences of the Gulf spill depends largely on how much oil reaches shore.

At this point, Opaluch told msnbc.com by e-mail, the most comparable spill is the Ixtoc I oil spill in 1979, caused by a blowout and subsequent fire from a drilling rig in Mexican waters of the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the well was brought under control in March 1980, an estimated 140 million galons of oil had spilled – more than 10 times larger than Exxon Valdez. Most of the oil stayed offshore for a long time, and at least some oil eventually came onshore on Texas beaches. “Damages from Ixtoc were relatively modest, certainly much less than Exxon Valdez as far as we can tell,” Opaluch said.

“I think the most important issues for the present spill are, one, how long the spill continues for, therefore how much is spilled; two, whether the spill comes ashore, and three, if it does come ashore, where it comes ashore,” he said.

“The best-case scenario is for all of the oil to go into the deep waters in the Gulf. The worst-case scenario is for much of the oil to come ashore in wetlands. An intermediate case is if the oil comes ashore primarily on rocky shorelines or sandy beaches.”

Hocevar said he’s still hopeful officials will find a way to plug the well leak, but he said a lot of environmental damage has already been done.

“This is the real cost of oil,” Hocevar said. “The Gulf may be the one place where we are best prepared to deal with an oil spill. This is a stark reminder of what little you can do once a spill happens.”

NOTE: This article was published at msnbc.com on April 29, 2010.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from msnbc. Visit the website at msnbc.com.


1.  What damage could possibly occur if the oil leak in the Gulf is not capped for months?

2.  What type of economic impact will the worst-case scenario have on the Louisiana fishing industry dockside – to the people who make their livelihood off of fishing?

3.  What has the Louisiana government done to assist shrimpers (shrimp fishermen) before the oil spill reaches the shrimping areas?

4.  a) According to James Opaluch, a university professor who has studied oil spills including the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, what factors will determine the severity of the damage caused to the environment from the Gulf oil spill?
b)  What does Mr. Opaluch say are the best and worst-case, and intermediate, scenarios for the oil spill?

5.  Read the information about Louisiana under “Background” below. Which of this information is new to you?

6.  John Hocevar of Greenpeace was interviewed for this article. Consider the following points and then answer the questions.

  • Greenpeace is an environmental organization. One of its main issues is its promotion to an end to all oil drilling and an end to all use of oil for our energy, as well as an end to the use of coal, which provides 50% of our energy in the U.S.
  • From the Greenpeace website: “It’s time to quit oil, get clean, and make a permanent switch to renewable energy [wind power, solar power].”
  • Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace says that environmentalism has been hijacked by extremists opposed to the intensive agriculture and biotechnology needed to feed and clothe the world’s population, saying “Environmental extremists are basically anti-human,” He also charged that an uncritical news media reports much of what organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund offer as fact without checking its validity.
  • Coal-fired electric power plants today produce more than 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. at low cost. Inexpensive electricity is essential to maintaining a dynamic competitive U.S. economy and our standard of living.
    In 2002, 98 percent of the U.S. electric system power generation came from: coal-fired (50 percent), nuclear (20 percent), oil and natural gas (21 percent), and hydroelectric (7 percent). (from asme.org/NewsPublicPolicy/GovRelations/PositionStatements/Need_Additional_US_CoalFired.cfm)

a)  What do you think Mr. Hocevar would like to see happen with any future oil drilling?
b)  Do you think if the U.S. ends off-shore oil drilling, Russia and other countries will as well?
c)  The captain of the Exxon Valdez was accused of being intoxicated when his tanker hit a reef and spilled an estimated 10 million gallons of crude oil. The cause of BP’s Gulf spill is not certain. Should all oil drilling off U.S. coasts be prohibited because oil spills like these can happen? Explain your answer.

7.  Watch the video under “Resources” below.  What do you think of Mr. MacDonald’s explanation?


ON THE POTENTIAL DAMAGE FROM THE OIL LEAK IN THE GULF:  (from telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/7653637/Gulf-of-Mexico-oil-spill-is-likely-to-be-a-catastrophe.html.)
As off Alaska, the oil threatens a huge area of particularly vulnerable coast. Louisiana is the largest producer of seafood in the lower 48 states, providing:

  • half the country’s shrimp catches
  • two out of every five of its oysters
  • more than a third of its blue claw crabs

And its three million acres of wetlands – 40 per cent of the U.S. total – provide vital nurseries and spawning areas for fish.

Over 70 per cent of the country’s waterfowl use the wetlands as resting or wintering areas.

All 110 of its species of migratory neo-tropical songbirds also rely on the wetlands.

In all, some 400 species – including whales and endangered turtles – are threatened by the spill.

As much as 90 per cent of the Gulf’s marine species depend on wetlands at some stage in their lives, and most of them are in Louisiana. 


Watch a video analysis of the possible effects from the oil spill at cbc.ca/video/player.html?category=News&clipid=1481404593.

For a timeline, map and photos, go to wsj.com.

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