Gulf Well Is Capped, But Still 'Hell To Be Paid'

Oil boom worker in Grand Isle, La. i i

hide captionIn this July 23 photo, a worker prepares to secure cleaned and repaired oil retention booms at a staging area in Grand Isle, La. While much of the emergency work in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill is now completed, it still is likely to cause dramatic fallout for years to come.

Dave Martin/AP
Oil boom worker in Grand Isle, La.

In this July 23 photo, a worker prepares to secure cleaned and repaired oil retention booms at a staging area in Grand Isle, La. While much of the emergency work in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill is now completed, it still is likely to cause dramatic fallout for years to come.

Dave Martin/AP

Its first act has concluded, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will continue to cause dramatic fallout for years to come.

The blown oil well Macondo has been covered with cement and was declared "effectively dead" Sunday, but its legal, ecological and economic effects are only just starting.

"It's great news that the BP blowout has finally been killed after five months," said Richard Charter, a marine policy adviser with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental advocacy group. "But this is the disaster that will keep on giving into the future. It could be decades."

Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu will convene an expert panel to discuss responses to future potential blowouts. Last week, Salazar ordered oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf to plug nearly 3,500 nonproducing wells and dismantle about 650 production platforms no longer in use.

The administration, meanwhile, has yet to signal what legal penalties it will pursue against energy giant BP or the other companies responsible for the spill. "The Justice Department's [civil] cases will be the biggest they've ever brought under the environmental laws," says David Uhlmann, former chief of Justice's environmental crimes section, "and I think the criminal case will have the biggest penalty."

Money Not Flowing Fast

In August, BP set up a $20 billion victim compensation fund, meant to mitigate the economic fallout from the spill. Residents along the Gulf shores are already loudly complaining that the fund, administered by "compensation czar" Kenneth Feinberg, has been slow to pay out.

"The claims process has become a secondary disaster in and of itself," said Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. "We have many, many claims filed and many people are hanging on by a thread to their boats and their homes."

Individuals and companies in fishing and tourism are either awaiting checks or complain that the money they've received from the fund restores only a fraction of their losses.

But Feinberg recently noted that he only set up shop about three weeks ago. He told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register that he has processed claims from 18,000 people and companies and authorized payments of more than $200 million. Still, he told the newspaper in a statement Friday, the fund "has to do better in processing claims."

The efforts by BP to stave off legal claims through creation of the fund will not be entirely successful, Picou predicts.

"Unbelievably complex litigation is emerging," he says. "For the residents of the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, nothing has ended."

Deep Beneath The Waves

Scientists still are trying to gain a sense of how much oil remains in the water, as well as what effects are being caused by chemical dispersants meant to break up the oil.

"We're not seeing the oil anymore in terms of a surface layer," said Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University. But that doesn't mean the oil is all gone.

Marine scientists are finding a "slime highway" along the ocean floor, Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, told NPR's Richard Harris.

"Due to the high pressure at which the oil came out, and the use of dispersants that deep in the water, it behaves very differently than oil that comes out of a tanker," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group based in Arizona. "We really have nothing to compare it to in terms of ecological impact."

Suckling predicts that the broken-down oil will enter the food chain at the lowest levels and work its way up. Both he and MacDonald stress that larger Gulf animals, such as bluefin tuna and sperm whales, will have to be monitored over several generations to get a sense of the damage done both to their populations and to their habitats.

"We're not necessarily going to have dead bodies onshore," MacDonald says, "but if we see a decline in the number of individuals in years to come, that's a matter of great concern."

Legal Ramifications

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in June, seeking $19 billion in Clean Water Act penalties against BP and Transocean Ltd., the company hired by BP to drill the Macondo well. Justice Department lawyers have asked federal courts to put its potential litigation on a separate track from such private actions.

Uhlmann, the former Justice Department official who now heads the University of Michigan's environmental law and policy program, predicts that the department will announce what charges it will seek against BP — as well as what penalties it might negotiate with the company — in the coming months.

"We're still figuring what hell's to be paid about this, and what the environmental costs are," Uhlmann says.

The administration's moratorium on deep-water drilling is set to expire Nov. 30, while a presidential commission investigating the Gulf spill will report its findings in January.

Uhlmann says he's not optimistic that major policy changes are forthcoming. In July, the House passed a bill that would address federal management of the Outer Continental Shelf and legal and safety issues raised by the Gulf oil spill. The Senate has yet to act on its version of the legislation, however, and may not do so until a post-election lame duck session, if then.

That has left environmentalists disappointed that a disaster of such scope and magnitude has yet to prompt major policy changes.

"The dramatic part of this story has been over since the well-capping in July," says Charter, the Defenders of Wildlife adviser. "The other shoe to drop right now is whether we'll see action in Congress."

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