My Capitol Hill Briefing on the Second Anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill

Photograph by Kim Hubbard for Audubon Magazine.

Yesterday at noon, I spoke to congressional staffers and members of environmental organizations at a brown bag briefing on Capitol Hill. Hosted by Senator Bill Nelson’s office and the Commerce Committee, the briefing was set up by the nonprofit Oceana to discuss, with scientists and technical experts, the status of Gulf recovery and offshore drilling regulatory reform. 

Others speakers included Julia Hathaway, program director for the National Wildlife Federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign, and Michael Craig, energy analyst for Oceana's Climate and Energy Campaign.

Below is my speech: 

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.—Chief Seattle

At this second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which killed 11 people and spewed oil in to the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, I come to you as a scientist to speak to the ongoing plight of the birds and habitats of the Gulf of Mexico. I also come as a child of the Chesapeake Bay, another of America’s great estuaries, and a citizen of the Gulf Coast. Through the long days of the acute disaster, my heart ached for the Laughing Gulls, birds from the beaches of my youth, the Brown Pelicans from my childhood rhymes, soaked in oil and dispersant, struggling to survive. I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you today.

While recent science indicates continued cause for concern from a disaster that could yet threaten our natural heritage, our nation’s security, and the health and welfare of our wildlife, economy, and communities, there is also cause for optimism. For science also shines bright promise on solutions that could restore the seventh largest delta in the world. As we’ve learned from the Exxon Valdez, in the life of a large oil spill, it is still early, and while there is much that we know, there are outcomes that will only reveal themselves in time.

What we know about the system:

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, established by President Obama to coordinate the long term restoration and conservation of America’s Gulf Coast, gathered the following facts. 

-The Gulf ecosystem provides more than 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production, 33 percent of the nation’s seafood, and contains 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage in the U.S.

-Gulf Coast states contribute more than two trillion dollars to the U.S. gross domestic product every year. All of these goods and services are dependent on the Gulf’s natural resources.

The Mississippi River Delta is a valued part of that system, is in rapid decline, and many have questioned the value and possibility of its restoration. National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation convened the Mississippi River Delta Science and Engineering Special Team, a network of eminent scientists and engineers, to analyze the value, potential, and costs of its restoration. Their recently released report, ‘Answering 10 Fundamental Questions about the Mississippi River Delta,’ highlighted the contribution of this delta to America:

-The Mississippi River carries 60 percent of all grain exported from the U.S., along with fertilizer, coal, and other products.

-Louisiana is number one in crude oil production, and number two in total energy production, in petrochemical production, in natural gas production, and in refining capacity in the U.S., as well as providing critical infrastructure for bringing imported oil to the nation.

-Louisiana fisheries contributed 13 percent of total U.S. commercial landings between 1995 and 2004, and this figure does not include the fish and shellfish reared in the Mississippi River Delta but caught elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. One-third of the nation’s oysters come from the Mississippi River Delta.

-The delta supports 100 million migratory, nesting, and wintering birds, who entice millions of bird watchers, photographers, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts to travel to see them across their range each year.

Yet, we are losing this precious land at the rate of one football field every 38 minutes through decades of mismanagement of sediment and water.

According to Louisiana’s new Master Plan for Coastal Sustainability, restoration of this national treasure will cost $50 billion over the next 50 years. Yet Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems provide at least $12 to 47 billion in benefits to people every year, and their restoration would provide an additional $62 billion per year in ecosystem services. This return on investment is unparalleled in other financial endeavors.

Indicators of health of our ecosystem:

Mobile, visible, and sensitive to the same air, water and food they share with us, birds have long been indicators of environmental harm. Canaries dying warned coal miners to flee or perish; Brown Pelicans disappearing from coasts warned us that we were poisoning our food and water with DDT.

We know that there is always oil seeping into this warm water ecosystem. We do not know, however, what happens when unimaginable quantities of it flood into the system mixed with kerosene and corexit.

And, according to Peterson from the University of North Carolina and his colleagues from many universities, we do not understand how oil moves at depth, how it affects deepwater environments and communities, and how oil is processed through that system. Given that most new drilling is slated for deepwater environments, we must conduct studies to understand these questions and to more appropriately manage and assess future spills.

What we do and don’t know about birds:

We know that 7,258 birds were collected during the spill, and we expect to eventually have a multiplier, a number derived from science to multiply by the dead and the oiled, to estimate how many birds actually perished.

Given rapid decomposition of corpses in the warm Gulf, the abundance of predators and scavengers, the small size of many of the affected birds, and the vast, lace-like, and intricate web of bayous, marshes and shorelines of the Gulf, and given that birds cannot detect oil, and so have no way to avoid it, we should expect that the multiplier may be large, perhaps unlike any we have ever seen.

Pigeon Guillemot:

In the words of John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

The Pigeon Guillemot, a small seabird, declined in the Exxon Valdez spill area. Ten to 15 percent of the spill area population perished from acute oiling, but then the decline continued, perhaps for many reasons. Adults feeding in the intertidal zone still have direct exposure to oil, which tests show to still be toxic. Some of their prey accumulate oil compounds, and for 10 years after the spill birds show biochemical markers for oil exposure, which may reduce their survival or success. Their food supply declined with the crash of the herring population. And they were subject to more predation as mink and river otters turned to them for food when the shellfish populations declined.

Which thread, when tugged, began to unravel the web that supported this tiny seabird?

Brown Pelican and other birds:

The Brown Pelican, poster child for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, represents all of the birds in the Gulf. We know that 826 of them were collected dead or alive. We do not yet know a multiplier to estimate how much of the population was acutely oiled.

We do know that oil has accelerated the loss of the mangroves in which they breed, accelerated erosion of their beaches and the marshes that produce their food. We know that the developing offspring of birds are often the most affected by exposure to oil, subject to mutations, low birth weight, failure to thrive, cancers, failure to reproduce, and sometimes death. For long-lived species such as pelicans, the young do not normally begin to breed until their third or fourth breeding season. We will not begin to see the effect on their reproductive lives for at least two more breeding seasons. And, because they were delisted prior to the spill, money for regular surveys is gone, and so we have lost continuity in one of the most valuable bird datasets along the Gulf Coast.

We know how oil affects any organism depends on many factors. These include the type of oil, how weathered it is, the route of transmission, what has consumed it, how much of it has been concentrated into the body tissues of the organism, and how long they have been exposed.

The National Center for Ecological Assessment and Synthesis out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has shown that in wetlands benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes continue to volatilize, damaging and killing insects, increasing prevalence of the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which causes problems for oysters and the organisms that eat them, reducing growth in mussels, and damaging coral reefs.

If I had to predict, I would be first concerned about our beach and marsh birds that are already showing the greatest declines, like Red Knots. I would be concerned about species with the smallest populations like Wilson’s Plovers, as many of those breed along the northern Gulf Coast. I would want to restore habitat for the Piping Plover, a threatened species, for they feed almost exclusively insects and other prey in the heavily oiled intertidal zone. But, as the Pigeon Guillemot shows, the complexity of ecosystems means that we need to monitor and be vigilant to detect the declines themselves.

What we know about solutions:

Given that further clean up of oil will only hasten the erosion of the coast;

Given that we can build land in my lifetime if we reconnect the life-sustaining Mississippi River to marshes and beaches through large-scale sediment diversions;

Given that the overwhelming majority of American people want to see fines incurred in the Gulf put back to restore the Gulf;

Given that we may not know the final toll on this vital ecosystem for decades;

We must act swiftly and decisively to restore this vital ecosystem.

We must fund long-term monitoring of the deepwater and nearshore environments, the marshes, birds and animals we put into harms way two years ago.

The government must remove barriers to coordination of response to hasten implementation of restoration.

We must use all the tools at our disposal, including sediment diversions to reconnect the Mississippi River to the delta, to begin to halt and reverse decades-long marsh loss.

We must assess and mitigate other threats in this system, to provide the greatest chance for full recovery.

We thank you for your work to date to pass the Restore Act, and implore you to pass the final legislation with all due haste;

And we ask that you continue to prioritize this national treasure in the future, whether that means legislation to protect it or appropriations to restore the Gulf.

Thank you.

*This piece was updated to reflect the fact that the event described was a congressional briefing. 

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