Leaders of Florida business, politics and academia converged for a meeting in Sanibel and were briefed on the oil spill by representatives from the Oil Spill Academic Task Force (OSATF). Comprised of representatives from all institutions in the State University System as well as from four of Florida’s private universities, OSATF was formed in collaboration with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to assist the state and the Gulf region in preparing for and responding to the impact of the oil spill. The OSATF briefing included five major truths about the spill and a rare and candid answer to the ever-present question, “Just how bad is it?”

Volume of Oil – The early, video-less days of the oil spill began with an estimate that approximately one thousand to two thousand barrels of oil were being leaked into the Gulf each day. Dr. Ian MacDonald, a professor in the Department of Oceanography at Florida State University, explained how his team used a combination of satellite imagery and some industry-standard scientific data (such as what a particular water color means as far as how much oil is in the water in that particular spot) to provide a much more accurate number.

It is now estimated that there are at least 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil being spilled per day. Some quick math that OSATF shared with us: there are forty-two gallons of oil in each barrel. If you imagine filling a gallon jug with oil and then setting another one right next to it until you’ve reached 60,000 barrels, your line would stretch for two-hundred-thirty-eight miles. That’s a line of oil about the distance from Miami to Orlando. Every day.

Update: Newly discovered BP internal documents may up the ante even further as they indicate a number closer to 100,000 barrels of oil per day, which puts our theoretical line of oil from Miami to Jacksonville.

Don’t Forget the Gas – Much focus has been placed on how much oil is leaking, but Dr. MacDonald was quick to point out that gas is also being expelled at an alarming rate. By his team’s estimates, there is easily twice as much methane gas coming from the leak each day as there is oil. (An est. 70,000 to 150,000 barrels was the figure provided prior to the recent BP document release.) While the gas does not cosmetically pack the same punch as the oil-slicked water, the environmental impact of that amount of methane leaking into the Gulf is still undetermined.

Economic Impact – According to Dr. Julie Harrington, Director of the Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, we are potentially months away from being able to provide an accurate estimate of what the economic impact will be to Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast. However, the areas that must be considered are:

  • Tourism
  • Commercial Fishing
  • Replacement of Wildlife
  • Recreational Industries (i.e. boat sales)

Additionally, local real estate leaders are reporting a heightened number of canceled closings as people hold off on making that planned move to the Sunshine State.

To provide a bit of perspective, Dr. Harrington cited the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. The final judgment of damages relating to that spill exceeded five billion dollars and the total spill amount was approximately 250,000 barrels. According to estimates, the BP spill has already resulted in a total of nearly five million barrels spilled.

The Dispersants – As part of the containment effort, BP has been using a record-setting amount of what they call “dispersant”. The debate on these chemicals is highly-charged, as the contents are considered by many to be toxic and, in fact, such dispersants are actually banned In the UK. Additionally, the dispersants have been proven to have little to no effectiveness in actually cleaning up the oil from the water.

However, the dispersants do have one known value. According to Dr. MacDonald, they are highly effective at changing the appeared concentration of oil in the water. In other words, the use of dispersants could easily make it appear like there was less oil in the water and affect the effectiveness of satellite imagery.

This would prove quite useful to, say, a company being billed based on the estimated damage their spill has caused.

The Goal Cannot Be 100% – One bone of contention that the panel had with President Obama’s recent address is the idea that we will be able to restore our region “one hundred percent”. The bottom line is that this spill is larger than any other our country has ever seen and it’s still going strong. Sadly we are only, as OSATF says, in Act One of this tragedy. Some additional points to consider:

  • Wildlife are now heading inland at alarming rates to try and escape the oil, thus starving off their supply of oxygen and resulting in even more deaths of sea creatures.
  • Hurricane season = Gulf region nightmare. It’s bad now and, yes, hurricanes would make it worse.
  • Election season is nearing upon us and that may mean more posturing by Gulf Coast leaders and less action. We have to hope that those in office make this disaster more of a priority than their own job security and, frankly, that’s a tall order.

However, among all of the gloom and doom Dr. MacDonald offered some poignant words of wisdom. “If you have cancer, you don’t want the doctors to tell you that you have a head cold. You want to be told that it’s cancer so you can fight like hell.”

Fellow Gulf Coast residents – It’s cancer. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. Now get ready for one hell of a fight.


Originally published Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawna-vercher/5-hard-truths—-florida_b_620260.html