BP's Deepwater Horizon: Climate Change Implications and Beyond

Deepwater Horizon by BP.  It sounds so futuristic, doesn't it?  A good sci-fi movie in the making!  (Maybe about averting climate change!)  Featuring the Top Kill! Maybe even a nuclear detonation! If only that were the case.  Instead, by some estimates, it's the worst oil spill in US history.

There's plenty of blame to go around. However, it might be more important to consider the wider implications of how we get our energy and the ways that global climate change will intersect with local environmental degradation and in turn what that means for ecosystems and society. The shortsighted nature of the oil spill and what brought us drilling for oil a mile below the Gulf of Mexico shouldn't dictate how our future looks.

The Deep Implications: Climate Change

The ramifications of BP's oil spill run as deep as the Loop Current that could push the spill's boundaries beyond the Gulf's warm waters.  There are two climate change-related ones that immediately come to mind.

BP planned to bring the oil to the global marketplace.  There, it would be burned to drive cars create plastic trinkets or any other number of economic activities. This would release greenhouse gases, increasing the chances of catastrophic climate change.

The total amount of oil gushing from Deepwater Horizon each day has been as much of a mystery as the Loch Ness Monster. BP has given an estimate of 5000 barrels a day. However, there are a number of other estimates from less invested sources that point to much higher totals, anywhere from 12,000 to 70,000 barrels a day.

Let's take the high end for a minute. Seventy thousand barrels of oil isn't even a drop in the bucket of daily global oil consumption.  The global carbon economy isn't going to slow down because of BP's catastrophic blunder. The emissions we've "saved" by watching them swirl in the Gulf of Mexico are nothing in the face of the business-as-usual scenario. In other words, we're still on an emissions path that could lead to catastrophic climate change.

The Deep Implications: Local Change

What about the local? Taking the minimum estimate, even 5000 barrels of oil washing up in the marshlands of Louisiana (and possibly beyond) is a huge local environmental catastrophe.

These ecosystems can filter some pollution, but the scale of the oil spill is beyond their natural defenses. As a result, BP has effectively damaged these ecosystems for generations. And with that damage, valuable ecosystem services are lost.

These include the aforementioned filtering of some pollutants, habitat for fish and wildlife, and protection from storm surges. These losses not only matter on an environmental level but also a societal level. People who rely on these resources for livelihoods including the tourism dollars they bring will suddenly find their financial well being negatively affected.

The Deep Implications: When Global Meets Local

People relying on these ecosystem services have more to worry about than livelihoods, though. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in North America:

"Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution."

BP's Deepwater Horizon provides a stark look into the future much too soon. The wetlands being destroyed by BP's oil are removing a critical frontline for coastal residents. If these wetlands aren't replaced by levies or sea walls, there's a chance that storms will inundate coastal areas, causing loss of life and property.

As our climate changes, it's possible that extreme weather events will happen with more frequency.  Even though hurricanes are an area of active research, there's still been an uptick in intense events. Future climate change projections do indicate that heavy precipitations events are likely to increase across the globe. An increase along the areas affected by the oil spill could create major flooding problems for coastal residents. This would also further damage ecosystems, lengthening recovery time.

In addition to storm surges, there's also a question of sea level rise (SLR), another effect of climate change. For some perspective, a 50 cm SLR could inundate 8500 to 19,000 kilometers of dry land according to the IPCC. Another study indicates that that same SLR could cover 50% of US wetlands in salt water.

All this is to say that the effects of the oil spill will be felt long after the last sea bird has been cleaned and the oil booms have been taken to the next environmental disaster. Climate change is a long-term problem that will keep pace with the effects of the oil spill and be felt even more intensely than if the spill hadn't happened.

Time for a (Personal) Climate Change?

Our energy comes from dirty sources.  It's not just a question of polluting our global atmospheric commons.  The local environment suffers from fossil fuel extraction, too.  Go visit a mountaintop removal or tar sands site and you'll see a wealth of ecosystem and public health concerns. That alone should be enough to question why we run our economy on these fuels at all.

Yet these problems generally remain over the horizon, just beyond our view. Then something drastic like BP's oil spill pulls back the curtain, revealing just how dangerous resource extraction is to the local environment and the people involved in it. Rather than turning away, we should look directly at the oil spill. It shows us a number of uniquely disturbing things.

It's a moment to pause and realize the era of easy oil is nearly over. Why else would BP be drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico? The easy oil reserves are gone and operations like Deepwater Horizon are the future of oil extraction: remote, high risk, and challenging.

Yet rather than take this as a sign we should kick start a new, more economically prosperous and environmentally friendly energy policy, the "drill baby, drill" lobby seems as strong as ever. Until the disaster, the climate change, err "energy," bill introduced by Senators Kerry and Lieberman had provisions for offshore drilling in sites just like the one where Deepwater Horizon failed.

BP's oil spill didn't happen in a vacuum.  It happened in a dynamic world with repercussions that will resonate far beyond the iced tea-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The local and global are intimately tied together. Rather than have those repercussions be negative, it's time to leave the oil a mile under the ocean and focus on realistic ways to reduce carbon emissions and avert catastrophic climate change.

The real future cannot be Deepwater Horizon by BP. Let's hope this can be a tipping point that moves us away from climate change and towards a real, clean energy future.

Photo Credit: Oil spill view & Bird affected by Oil spill