The latest discovery by local scientists researching the BP oil spill is a reminder to the drill-baby-drill crowd that the nation's energy policy cannot return to business as usual. University of South Florida scientists have found that millions of amoeba-like creatures that form the basis of the Gulf of Mexico's food chain have died. The news underscores the need for long-term monitoring and restoration and for the nation to get serious about diversifying its energy to renewable sources and cleaner supplies.
USF researchers have been at the forefront of the scientific effort to map the environmental impact of the April 2010 spill caused when the BP-leased offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and later sank in 5,000 feet of gulf water about 52 miles south of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and releasing more than 200 million gallons of oil. The USF team has dug up core samples from the gulf bottom ever year since the accident, and it plans to return this year and next to compare the findings. They discovered that the die-off of tiny foraminifera stretched through the mile-deep DeSoto Canyon and beyond, following the path of the discharge of oil. The sediment samples had the same chemical signature as the BP oil.
The findings add to the understanding of the complexity and interconnection of the gulf's food chain. The foraminifera are consumed by clams and other creatures, that provide food for varieties of fish that have been found with lesions. The research team is examining the connection between diseased fish found in the gulf after the BP spill and the impact on fisheries. These studies are vital to measuring the health of the gulf and to helping Florida and other coastal states recover economically.
The new studies may also shed light on the government's decisions in the cleanup. In the heat of efforts to cap the broken well, the government authorized BP to apply 800,000 gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit directly to the undersea wellhead. That had never been done before. The dispersant broke the oil into tinier units to keep it from washing ashore. But researchers say that may have caused the oil to deposit instead on the gulf floor where it killed the foraminifera.
The immediate lesson is that it will take years — if not decades — for a complete picture of how the BP spill damaged the gulf and that the nation cannot quickly walk away from the worst environmental disaster in its history. BP needs to be held accountable for the damage over the long term. And the federal government and the states need to acknowledge that offshore drilling remains highly risky, despite the post-spill safety reforms. This is no time to open more of the gulf to the unknown danger of oil drilling. Developing renewable energies and working harder on the conservation front must be the nation's new priority.