A Sea in Flames

Bookshelf: A Sea in Flames

A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout – Carl Safina

A Sea in Flames
A Sea in Flames

The memory of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is fairly fresh, as it’s been exactly two years since the rig exploded. Eleven men were killed, and unimaginable quantities of crude oil leaked out into the fertile fishing and tourist area where the rig was drilling. The rig was drilling in water 1.5 kilometres deep, and during the course of exploratory drilling, had made contact with deposits of natural gas and oil at a depth of over 6 kilometres under the sea floor. When a pressure test (basically to establish whether the well had been sealed properly) failed, oil and gas shot out of the well at incredible volumes and pressure. It took four months for BP (the rig’s owners) and Transocean (the rig’s operator) to stop the oil gushing out of the well.

Carl Safina has written three other books – Song for the Blue Ocean, Voyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the Albatross – establishing himself as a lyrical, sensitive author with a deep love for the creatures he writes about. This book is a radical departure from that writing style. It was penned swiftly, while the crisis was unfolding. Safina seethes with rage, drips sarcasm, and does not bother to hide his contempt for BP, the coastguard, and the US government’s handling of the spill. BP in particular receives frequent tongue lashings, displaying astonishing ineptitude, dishonesty and even contempt for the ecological and human tragedy that the spill unleashed. BP chief Tony Hayward eventually stepped aside, but not before embarrassing himself and enraging both the horrified public and the US government. BP’s report on the disaster can be found here, along with some very sanitised and bright  (and digitally manipulated) images and videos. This clip from the US Coastguard shows the immensity of the fire that ignited when the rig exploded (it went out two days later, when the rig sank).


There are ample other sources which describe the oil spill and its effects, the timeline of the spill, and the efforts made to stop the flow of oil. I will mention, however, what particularly struck me in reading this book.

First, it’s abundantly clear that while oil drilling and prospecting technology has progressed at an incredible rate over the last 30 years, cleanup and recovery equipment has not changed at all since 1970. Driven by the diminishing availability of oil reserves that are actually easily accessible, drilling has moved into the deep ocean and is a task of immense complexity and technological sophistication. As Safina observes, oil companies receive great rewards for finding and extracting new oil deposits. The risks, however, are almost entirely borne by the public and the environment, both of which suffer far greater losses when a spill occurs than the oil companies do.

Massive volumes of toxic chemical dispersants were sprayed onto the slick and injected into the plumes of oil under the ocean surface – the effects of these is unknown and has not been studied. The remainder of the relief effort involved floating booms (totally ineffective in the presence of waves or wind chop) as physical barriers, and manual cleanups of beaches and marshes. Disaster management plans for the Gulf of Mexico – a tropical environment inhabited by whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and shrimp – made mention of walrus and other creatures found only in Alaska. A lot of copy and paste, and very little thought, went into these plans.

Safina draws heavily (perhaps too heavily – this is very disappointing) on news reports of the spill, including much speculation about its extent and likely effects by journalists and media spokespeople. He describes the frustration and depression experienced by the inhabitants of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the other areas affected by the spill, and the crushing uncertainty of whether the oil would wash up or pollute a given area. Ultimately most of the estimates of the spill’s effects were shown to be overwrought and overly pessimistic. Oil eating bacteria that occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico (which is subject to natural oil seepage at the rate of a few thousand barrels per day – it’s an oil rich area with cracks in the seafloor that constantly admit tiny quantities of oil into the ocean) were able to consume part of the oil. Some of it evaporated naturally. Some of it was dispersed into droplets so small as to be invisible to the naked eye when mixed with seawater. A tiny amount was collected from the gushing well by vessels on the surface.

Much oil, however, was washed up on beaches, deposited on the seafloor or in marshes, and remains suspended in the water of the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of sea birds, and hundreds of turtles and dolphins were oiled. Long-lived, slow growing creatures such as turtles, dolphins, and tuna will only show the effects that the spill has had on their populations in a decade or more’s time. Concerns that entire planktonic life cycle stages of creatures such as bluefin tuna were wiped out by the dispersant chemicals and low oxygen concentrations (caused by the growth of oil eating bacteria) will only be tested in years to come when the absence or diminution of a generation of tuna can be measured. Fish stocks in the gulf rebounded during the months in which the fishing grounds were closed, but fishermen are now reporting diminished catches, sickly and dying crabs, and stillborn dolphin calves as a matter of course. The oyster farming industry in the area has been all but wiped out. Consumer confidence in seafood from the affected area plummeted amid fears that fish and shellfish would be toxic or contaminated by oil and dispersant chemicals. Confidence has not recovered, and nor has tourism to the region.

While it seems that the worst case scenarios touted by the press during the spill were exaggerated (this opinion piece is an excellent analysis of the uncomfortable collision between scientists and the media), estimates of the spill’s extent proved to be very accurate. BP’s estimates of the rate of flow from the well were outright lies from the beginning, but mathematical models based on current, wind, and the area of ocean fouled by the oil over a given time period provided flow estimates that were later demonstrated to be spot on.

Safina’s primary conclusion is that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, starting immediately. Instead of pouring huge amounts of money into researching technology to reach ever more remote oil deposits, we should be channeling funds into clean alternative energy sources. He points out how we have lost any sense of the difference between price, cost and value (he writes a bit about the distinction here). We fail to recognise the value of the service provided by the world’s forests and oceans in absorbing carbon dioxide, for example, because they do not cost us anything in order to benefit from them. Thinking about the earth’s resources in these terms will enable us to be less cavalier about squandering the benefits they supply.

Safina also executes something of an about turn in his opinion of the US Coastguard’s handling of the spill. At various points as the disaster unfolded, it appeared that the coastguard was firmly in the pocket of BP, and was deferring to the criminal party in the management of the crime scene. A meeting with retired Admiral Thad Allen leads Safina to a more nuanced understanding of the events he witnessed, and his opinion of Allen’s handling of the catastrophe is much improved.

This book was written quickly, in the heat of emotion, and it’s very obvious. Even the title is somewhat overwrought, and I’m dubious about the merit of writing the entire book under a misconception that was only corrected at the eleventh hour by meeting with Admiral Allen. While Safina’s book provides an on the ground picture of what it was like to live among the communities that experienced the full effects of the spill, it isn’t easy to follow the chronology of the spill. He doesn’t go into much detail about what BP tried in order to stem the flow of oil (that information was, in any case, withheld from the public for the most part) and is not really concerned with a linear history of the spill. There is room for a reasoned, more clinical account of the spill and its effects, especially after enough time has passed to fully understand what those effects might be.

Some more opinions on the book can be found here and here. This article is a good read concerning the extent of the recovery in the region of the spill. Finally, this article describes the dramatically reduced catches of seafood in the Gulf region, and the horrible mutations and lesions that are being found in many of the species there.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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