Ten years ago, while reporting on the BP oil spill, I fell hard for the Gulf Coast. Its spectacular wetlands seemed so underappreciated that I devoted the next year of my life to writing about them. In terms of biological richness and diversity, the region is America’s crown jewel.
If you care about birds, you know this. Louisiana contains up to 40 percent of the Lower 48’s coastal wetlands, right in the perfect spot on the Mississippi Flyway to offer hundreds of species a pit stop on their migrations.
As the massive oil slick descended on the coast, I had two conflicting thoughts. I feared that the oil would destroy this living masterpiece. And I hoped that, whatever happened, the tragedy would spur us to change the irresponsible way we’ve been treating it.
And I was wrong on both counts. The Gulf Coast is a robust and resilient ecosystem, and it shook off the spill’s impacts better than most people expected. In that warm and biologically active environment, oil degrades relatively quickly. But that doesn’t mean the Gulf is in good shape. On the contrary, it’s deeply imperiled.
After the spill, the Obama administration significantly toughened regulation and enforcement of the offshore industry. But the Trump administration has aggressively weakened that enforcement, even as it pushed to expand offshore drilling. Last year broke records for oil production in the Gulf, and before the corornavirus pandemic froze the U.S. economy, 2020 was projected to be even bigger. An oil spill is just as likely today as it was 10 years ago.
In fact, spills are constant. How could they not be? In the last decade, permits for 941 new wells, including 588 in deep water, were approved in the Gulf, an area plumbed with some 45,000 miles of underwater pipelines. There are nearly 30,000 abandoned wells, all slowly corroding. One collapsed well has been gushing upward of 4,500 gallons of oil a day for 15 years and will likely continue for many more. It may spill far more oil than BP ever did.
But leaking oil is the least of the Gulf’s problems. Saltwater is killing its marshes. Part of this is due to rising seas caused by climate change, part to the 10,000-plus miles of canals cut through them by the oil industry. But the major factor is subsidence. The Louisiana coast is a giant pile of mud built by sediment. Constantly settling, it depends on replenishment from the Mississippi River’s annual floods. Since the river was leveed, however, sediment has stopped coming. More than 2,000 square miles of coast have already disappeared. Places I stood in 2010 no longer exist.
None of this changed because of the spill. But it may still. Billions of dollars of BP’s fines are flowing toward Gulf restoration. These landscape-scale projects are the only way to tackle massive challenges like subsidence. They’re also the kind of heavy lift that will be required to respond to climate change worldwide. If they succeed, then the spill may not only be an icon of how things go wrong, but also of how we can make them right.
Rowan Jacobsen is an award-winning author of seven books, including The Living Shore and Shadows on the Gulf. He reported for Outside Magazine during the spill.