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Stony Brook Panel Discusses Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

A few months ago, the Gulf of Mexico was struck with one of the most detrimental man-made disasters in recent history. On April 20, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon leaked due to high pressure. The oil expanded onto the platform and ignited, killing several of the workers on board.  Five days later, an estimated 1;000 barrels of oil a day were gushing out of a damaged wellhead.  The spill became the largest oil spill in U.S. history, overtaking the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

In a panel entitled “The Gulf Oil Spill: What Have We Lost?” five distinguished guests spoke to a packed auditorium on Friday evening about the overall impact of the oil spill. The panel included James Ammerman, an aquatic microbial ecologist and biogeochemist, Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography, James Klurfeld, visiting professor of journalism, Anne McElroy, marine toxicologist professor and Carl Safina, a conservationist.

The panel discussed the total impact of the oil spill; damage of the spill was measured at 4.9 million barrels, according to U.S. government estimates. There is no doubt that the ecological impact of the spill was detrimental, and that British Petroleum, or BP was caught unprepared.

“We were prepared for an Exxon Valdez type disaster, not this type of disaster,” Klurfeld said.

The Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989 occurred when an oil tanker struck a reef off the Coast of Alaska, spilling several hundred thousand barrels of crude oil and prompting legislation such as Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Since this was previously the worst case scenario, this is what oil companies prepared for. So, as McElroy said, “we prepare for oil spills at the surface, not deep down.”

So who is to blame?

There are several culprits, according to the panel. The consumer is one.

“As long as we need oil, we will need to use the oil in the Gulf,” McElroy said.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Americans consume nearly 20 million barrels of oil a day and export nearly 2 million additional barrels a day.

BP, the company criticized most by the media, might have handled the spill better than is usually perceived. Safina mentioned that “BP did a lot of things terribly”, yet in the long run, “BP also acted surprisingly honestly.” BP has paid nearly 1.2 billion dollars to individuals and businesses affected by the oil spill.

However, the overall theme of the night seemed to be not about who is to blame for the spill, but moving forward, what can be done and how we can learn from such a disaster, which brings attention to the issue of how we consume oil.

“It’s not the oil that gets away, it’s the oil we capture,” Safina said.

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