Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The invisible oil spill, Atlanta’s tree canopy, & pollution fines for Exxon

In mid-October, a pipeline fractured about a mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. About 16,000 barrels ― 672,000 gallons ― of oil spilled in less than two days. The response to shut off the pipeline was delayed, since it was about a day before the Coast Guard noticed sheens on the water while flying overhead and reported it.

Authorities said the oil would move southwest and wouldn’t affect the shoreline, so no emergency action was taken to clean it up. A few weeks later, it has all but disappeared, according to The New York Times. Bacteria digested the oil at a pace fast enough to render it nearly invisible. Still, 16,000 barrels is no small amount ―the spill was the largest in the Gulf since the 3-million barrel Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Officials said it didn’t warrant a cleanup because the leak was so deep and the oil disappeared quickly; they couldn’t find many traces of it in the water, save for the fraction of droplets that traveled to the surface. The fracture still hasn’t been fixed, but oil is not flowing through the pipeline for now. The Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is reportedly investigating what happened to cause the rupture in the first place.

Without the oil and gas industry, natural oil seepage releases an estimated 20 million to 50 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico every year. According to EPA data, the production, storage, transport, and use of oil results in 10 to 25 million gallons of oil spilled annually in general; there are more than 30,000 small spills each year, with many of those concentrated in the Gulf.

Next spring, the Trump administration plans to auction off 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and  gas leases to boost the offshore oil industry. The area will include “all available un-leased areas on the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf,” according to a statement by officials. The outer continental shelf is estimated to hold more than 48 billion barrels of oil and 141 trillion cubic feet of gas. This move to unleash the oil industry on these delicate marine ecosystems comes as the industry struggles with low oil prices. Many companies are divesting from oil; some are even switching gears to capitalize on the offshore wind industry, which is taking off in Europe and slowly gaining momentum in the U.S.

Earlier this week, I polled a few people in my community, which is largely plugged into environmental news, to see how much knowledge there was about this spill and what’s going on in the Gulf. No one I spoke to had heard about it. Although the story was covered by many news outlets when the oil started leaking, its updated numbers ― which were double what officials first reported ― weren’t circulated as widely.

This isn’t surprising, especially in a month with an overwhelming amount of news: the Vegas massacre; the sexual harassment allegations in Hollywood and media; Paul Manafort’s surrender to the FBI after being charged with conspiracy against the U.S.; the attack in New York City. And that’s not counting the environmental news: the United Nations’ warning to countries to take carbon emissions more seriously; EPA head Scott Pruitt’s move to dismantle scientific advisory committees and replace them with his own appointees; the study by 63 doctors around the world that revealed how climate change is already harming public health.

All of this is impossible to properly digest for people who are plugged in, who have the access to technology and the time to read in-depth stories, who exist in bubbles where this type of information flows. It’s exponentially harder for those who aren’t ― whether they’re isolated in rural spaces in Mississippi or small religious towns in Appalachia, or busy working three jobs on opposite ends of Memphis to stay afloat. That information gap is made even wider in a society that accepts as just a fact of nature that 20 million gallons of oil are spilled every year, and under an administration that is using its highest arm of power to expand the industry that causes that pollution.

What’s occurring in the Gulf of Mexico is a stark reminder of how fast facts dissipate, how quickly we move on. It also offers a clue into why information takes time to trickle down, and why it’s unrealistic to expect that the general public notices or invests in such issues. Many of the most consequential things aren’t seen until there’s only a sheen of residue left.

Stories worth your time

In 2008, tree canopy covered nearly half of Atlanta. After years of rampant development in the city, it’s looking to revamp its tree and zoning ordinances to reduce the destruction of forest cover while supporting the growth of businesses. But that’s complicated, as WABE, Atlanta’s local NPR station, reports.

The Paris Review looks at photos in Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, which was originally printed in 2004 and recently released in a new edition. The photos “capture America’s iconic, oft-neglected ‘third coast,'” Soth writes. Driving all over the region, from Minnesota to the lower Midwest to Kentucky, he documented the people that live along the river and its tributaries.

Many residents in the evangelical town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia believe that the deadly flooding caused by heavy rainfall last year was a Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse. Now, some are considering the possibility of climate change as its explanation, and grappling with how that science could work with their faith. It’s the latest installment in Meera Subramanian’s series on how people in flyover country are confronting climate change. Read it in West Virginia Public Broadcasting and InsideClimate News.

Much of the post-hurricane coverage has focused on Puerto Rico, which is largely still without electricity. There are already controversies over how to restore power and rebuild the island. But not much is being said about the Virgin Islands. The U.S. territories are still suffering after being ravaged by Hurricane Irma more than six weeks ago. Power has been restored to “less than a third of St. Thomas residents, to 16 percent of St. Croix customers and to hardly anyone on St. John,” according to the Miami Herald. Last week, NPR interviewed the executive editor of the Virgin Islands Daily News about what life is like on the islands.

News flying under the radar 

The EPA and Justice Department said that Exxon will pay $2.5 million for pollution from flaring gases at eight plants along the Gulf Coast. Officials saidExxon will use a portion of the money to install new monitoring and pollution control technologies at the petrochemical plants in Louisiana and Texas.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has decided to narrow its water quality review for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines to “upland” areas. Environmental groups are not happy, claiming the state water control board cannot make a reasonable assessment with that information.

Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy is splitting into a coal company and natural gas company in its latest move to exit the coal industry. In 2013, it sold five mines in West Virginia to Murray Energy and paid a Kentucky company $44 million in 2016 to take over its last two West Virginia mines.