Feature

A ‘static kill’ finally seals the Deepwater well

BP officials said Deepwater Horizon was close to being permanently sealed, thanks to a procedure in which thousands of gallons of mud were pumped into the well.

What happenedThree months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion touched off the calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP officials said this week that the well was close to being permanently sealed, thanks to a successful “static kill” procedure in which thousands of gallons of mud were pumped into the well. BP declared the development a “significant milestone,” while President Obama said “the long battle to stop the leak is finally coming to an end.” Still, officials were not declaring total victory, noting that a relief well will not be completed for a few weeks and that additional spillage is still possible. “You want to make sure it’s really dead, dead, dead,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The government released a new estimate of the size of the spill that officially made it, by far, the worst accidental marine oil spill in history: Officials said 4.9 million barrels, or 206 million gallons, had poured into the Gulf. The impact on the environment, though, appears to be less severe than initially feared. Nearly three-quarters of the spilled oil has been eliminated, new reports indicated, either because it was captured, burned, or skimmed; dispersed naturally or through chemicals; or dissolved on its own. Still, scientists can’t say what long-term effects the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it will have on the Gulf ecosystem.

What the editorials saidThe static kill is obviously great news, said the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but it hardly means “the disaster is over.” The assessment of the environmental damage to the Gulf region has barely begun. And while big surface slicks of oil may have been dispersed, millions of gallons of “oil-based pollution” are still in the water. These toxins could affect marine life for generations.

Yet when it comes to preventing future spills, Congress is still dithering, said The New York Times. “Over the opposition of most Republicans and the massed lobbying power of the oil industry” the House has passed a bill that would raise fines for spills, require companies to have detailed spill-response plans, and reform the agency that oversees drilling. But now Senate Republicans are blocking these reforms. “Do the Republicans really want to tell voters in the fall that they have done nothing to respond to the spill?”

What the columnists saidThe predictions of environmental catastrophe are starting to look like so much “eco-hype,” said Michael Grunwald in Time. The BP spill so far has killed only 1 percent of the number of animals claimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. “Unlike the black glop from the Valdez,” the Deepwater oil is “unusually light and degradable,” so the warm Gulf’s natural bacteria could process it, and the Mississippi River’s strong current could keep it away from the coast. Just 350 acres of marsh have been contaminated—a tiny fraction of the wetlands acreage Louisiana already loses every year. So while the spill was significant, it’s no “ecological calamity.”

“We were told the universe as we know it would soon vanish,” said Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times. So naturally, the Obama administration capitalized on that fear, slapping harsh restrictions on fishing and a moratorium on oil drilling. Now the “hype and hysteria” have been exposed. The greatest damage may actually have been inflicted by the federal government, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. The drilling ban Obama imposed “has been devastating to the region, costing thousands of jobs and untold millions in lost revenues and taxes.” The Gulf will recover. Will its economy?

It’s far too early to celebrate, or to gloat, said Dan Froomkin in HuffingtonPost.com. Scientists have now found signs of an “oil-and-dispersant mix” under the shells of blue crab larvae—“the first indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the food chain.” The big slicks of oil may no longer be visible. But in the long run, the chemicals used to break up the oil may well pose a greater danger to marine life than the oil itself.

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