Oil Spill Update: Experts Weigh In on Next Steps to Protect Birds, Marine Animals, and Habitat

Photo: Kim Hubbard/Audubon Magazine
Five months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, unleashing an unprecedented amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the well is dead. Permanently plugging BP’s well proved to be an incredible feat of engineering, but now comes the really hard part: restoring damaged habitat and protecting the wildlife that depend on it. We asked experts, from environmentalists and scientists to government agencies and legislators, what the most important next steps are. Here’s what they have to say:
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce 

We need to continue to monitor the Gulf and take remedial action as necessary. The Exxon Valdez showed us that major oil spills can have lasting impacts. The BP oil spill also emphasizes the need to continue to address our dependence on oil. The tailpipe standards finalized by the President earlier this year have done more than any action in 30 years to reduce our dependence on oil, but still more needs to be done.
Carl Safina, co-founder and president of Blue Ocean Institute
The most important next steps are: Catch up to China and Germany on energy policy. Wean ourselves off oil, off petro-dictatorships, off corporate control of Congress. Institute a plan to get America working by building the bridge to the energy of the future. Build a national smart grid that can take electricity no matter how it is generated from sources of abundance to where it's needed (oil in the Gulf, solar in the Southwest, wind on the Plains). Invest America in scaling up the clean, eternal sources that will be the energy of the future‹geothermal, liquid algae fuel (jets have already flown with it), wind, solar, tidal. This is the energy that actually runs our planet. Why not use it? Let's bring home the American businesses that have fled overseas because the U.S. is passive-aggressive to everything but fossil fuel companies. American
expatriate companies are thriving on foreign soil where they enjoy significant incentives to develop green energies. Whoever owns the future of energy will own the future. I'd rather it be the U.S. I'd rather not buy all the hardware from China.

At home in the Gulf, there must be heavy monitoring for several years. The leak is over. But that's just the source. The oil's effects continue to play out.
Richard Condrey, Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University 
Basic physiology suggests that dispersed oil will negatively impact the reproductive capabilities of a wide variety of animals. Since almost all fishery-exploited marine animals are at least approaching overfished conditions, the additional stress of dispersed-oil may constitute the approach of a tipping point beyond which recovery is uncertain.

Spawning blue crabs and their known (Ship and Trinity Shoals) and suspected (St. Bernard Shoals) offshore sandy-shoal spawning grounds are ideal indicator species and ecosystems which have likely been impacted by the spill (though this has not received study).
I am unaware of any comprehensive plan to address the hypothesis that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has had a negative impact on the economically and ecologically important resources of the Gulf of Mexico in at least the offshore waters less than 20 fathoms—despite the importance of this as spawning grounds for white shrimp and blue crabs. I am concerned that we have lost valuable time and that there is no intention to address these concerns.
Jay Holcomb, Executive Director, International Bird Rescue Research Center 
The cleaning up of the gulf oil spill is winding to a close but another door of opportunity is opening. Its been 21 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill and information is still being garnered from research projects that look at the long term impacts of oil on the environment that were carried out in some of the heaviest impacted areas in Alaska. It is only through these types of long-range projects that the long-term impact of oil is revealed. The impacted areas of the gulf should now be considered a research laboratory where long-range impacts from the oil and the dispersant, which no one seems to really know about, can be evaluated. Funding for these projects should be made available by BP.

Additionally, the establishment of man made nesting islands to augment the remaining nesting islands that are left in the gulf should be considered important as many of the original barrier islands have been eroded away through dredging and other activities. Additional habitats such as this have been proven to go a long way towards restoring wild bird populations impacted by oil spills.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Although the threat from the well has ended, many chapters lie ahead for the recovery and restoration of Gulf ecosystems affected by the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Since the earliest moments of this spill, NOAA and our federal and state partners have been conducting a thorough Natural Resource Damage Assessment to quantify injuries to habitat and wildlife, including marine and migratory fish, endangered species such as sea turtles, and marine mammals. As damage assessment surveys continue along the coastline and in sensitive wetlands, scientists also are working on ships in deep waters collecting water samples and conducting analyses to determine if any remaining oil threatens marine life. NOAA will continue to work with federal and state leaders, the academic community and the public to plan and implement restoration activities critical to the long-term recovery of the Gulf’s incredible habitats, fisheries and wildlife.
As NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco recently stated at a September 15 press conference, “This monitoring effort, the resource damage assessment effort and the recovery effort will all be underpinned by good science.”


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 
In the initial stages of response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s activities were focused on recovery of live and dead oiled birds, oversight of wildlife rehabilitation facilities, protection of National Wildlife Refuge lands, and beginning the process of assessing damage to Service trust resources (migratory birds, endangered and threatened species, refuge lands, interjurisdictional fish species).
Recovery activities are winding down. As recovery crews find fewer and fewer birds, these efforts are being scaled back and discontinued. However, assisting the activities of beach and other sensitive area cleanup crews by providing technical oversight will continue until cleanup operations are complete.
Assessing damage to fish and wildlife resources and habitats from an event as large as the BP spill is a long-term process and could continue for decades. The Service is working with other trustees (federal and state government agencies) under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) program to evaluate impacts of the spill. Long-term actions include evaluating movement of wintering birds, determining mortality rates of oiled birds, and assessing damage to habitats.
Accurate data are essential in preparing legally defensible cases under NRDAR. The goal of the NRDAR program is to restore the natural resources that were injured as a result of the spill, along with the services they provide. The funding and implementation of restoration needed is accomplished utilizing monetary compensation from the responsible parties that injured the resources.
In the interim, the Service and other trustees are finalizing and implementing the first round of bird injury studies from data that was collected in the first few weeks of the spill. They are planning for the assessment of future injuries that may result as seasons and species assemblages change. The trustees also are developing additional studies to evaluate broad injuries across the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and considering potential future restoration ideas to address those bird injuries once they are quantified.
David Yarnold, National Audubon Society president 
The House acted to address both short- and long-term threats on July 30, around two weeks after oil stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the blown-out Macondo well. The Obama administration has also begun taking steps to live up to its commitment to making the Gulf Coast healthier than it was before the disaster. But the Senate now has only weeks to get the job done. And the people, wildlife and wetlands of the Gulf Coast cannot afford to wait.
The administration and the House have planted the seeds of a response that can combine the immediate cleanup with longer-term efforts to stop and ultimately reverse long-term degradation of this globally significant ecosystem.
But it won't be enough to pass legislation full of good intentions. What's needed is a guaranteed source of funding. The House took an important step by passing the CLEAR Act, which included an amendment offered by Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., that directs civil penalties from the BP spill to coastal restoration. That means an immediate $1.2 billion for efforts to reverse the loss of storm protection and habitat across the Gulf Coast. The amendment was so uncontroversial that it passed the House in a voice vote.
Now it's up to the Senate. The two-week clock starts ticking on Sept. 13. An American treasure - its largest wetlands region - can and must be restored. For the sake of the people and wildlife of coastal Louisiana, is this too much to ask?
John Hocevar, Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Director 
We must hold BP - and the government - accountable to ensure that sufficient funds are allocated to help restore coastal habitats and compensate coastal communities. Funding needs to be dedicated to long-term research on the scope and impacts of this disaster, as the effects are likely to be felt for decades to come. We must learn from this disaster and take action to prevent future accidents. The unfortunate truth is that despite our best efforts, large oil spills cannot be cleaned up. We need an immediate ban on new offshore drilling, and a shift as rapid as possible away from dangerous fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy technologies."
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been working tirelessly on behalf of Gulf of Mexico communities, and the rich and productive ocean and coastal ecosystems that have been deeply affected by the BP oil disaster. Though the well has been capped, our experience with the Exxon-Valdez disaster in Alaska twenty years ago has proven the job is far from over. Below are key areas of focus for the NRDC moving forward:
* Keeping the story alive: NRDC, along with the Gulf Coast Fund, established the Gulf Coast Resource Center in Buras, Louisiana, to help document, through investigative journalism, the untold stories of Gulf communities and residents. In addition to extensive on-the-ground reporting by NRDC staff, the Gulf Coast Resource Center is partnering with StoryCorps, a non-profit oral history group, to let Gulf residents tell their own stories on their own terms.
* Promoting independent science: On May 24th BP announced a commitment to put $500 million into a long-term (10 yr.) open research program to study the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the ocean and coastal environments. However, there has been no word on the fate of the long-term research program. What appeared to be a promising injection of significant, long-term money into important questions on oil spill response and impacts may well have been compromised by politics. NRDC is working hard to ensure this fund is not forgotten, and is advocating this fund be executed by independent researchers via a competitive grant-giving process.
* Getting the most out of the NRDA process: The government is responsible for assessing oil spill damage to natural resources, and for crafting a long-term restoration plan to remedy injuries. This process, called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), is both a scientific investigation and a means for gathering evidence for the government's legal case against BP to ensure that BP, and not the public, pays for the restoration of these public resources. The NRDC is pressuring the government to make certain that the scope of the scientific research is unbiased, long-term, and comprehensive, as well as transparent and open to the public. An important part of the restoration process after such a traumatic disaster is the act of informing people what is happening on their behalf to make them whole.
* Advocating for reform of offshore oil and gas activities: With a long history of offshore oil and gas reform advocacy, the NRDC has been active in calling for legislative and regulatory overhaul of offshore drilling. We are currently pressuring the Senate to pass Senator Reid's oil spill response bill, S. 3663. Beyond this bill, the NRDC has been busy promoting the establishment of an oceans trust fund, funded in part by a portion of government revenues from energy-related offshore activities, that will be used to protect, restore and maintain our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.
* Telling the real story behind the Gulf oil spill disaster: The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a failure that extends beyond faulty mechanics and human error. This disaster represents clear policy choices that have led the U.S. to be a highly oil-dependent country. Executive Director Peter Lehner has published the first book about the Gulf oil spill crisis, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, which describes both how to reduce the risk from offshore drilling, and how to reduce the need for such activity. The NRDC will continue to lead the charge towards a clean energy economy.

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