What will be the long term effects of the oil spillage?

 No one knows (or no one will tell) us precisely how much oil has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon a mile below the sea in the Gulf of México. Current estimates to date are that around a million barrels have so far been pushed into the sea since 20th April 2010. BP has so far spent $990 million in trying to stop the leak and clean up the mess, which makes for around $100 a barrel in clean up costs.

This is not the largest oil leak; that prize goes to the 5.7 million barrels spilt in the first Gulf War, in Kuwait. In second place with more than three million barrels spilt is Itox 1 in México in 1979.

Oil is a visible pollutant. You can see it on the surface of the sea, and you can see the damage it does to wildlife. Beaches in North West Florida and in Louisiana are threatened with oil pollution and shrimping and fishing industries have been badly affected by it. There are fears that the dispersants used to break up oil slicks are causing a great deal of environmental damage.

These are relatively small quantities of pollutant, yet they are having a terrible effect upon the environment. Small spills can be digested by nature, and although nature will eventually disperse and reduce the impact of the present oil spills this will probably take decades, unless huge resources are put into the clean up and the clean up is conducted in an environmentally intelligent way.

Yesterday BP expressed a hope that their present measures may be successful, but success is not measure in terms of absolute terms; the leak will be contained rather than completely stopped. We shall see what containment means, in this context in the next few days.

Oil is not the only pollutant that is leaking into the sea; natural gas, mainly comprised of methane, that very effective greenhouse gas. There has been no word from BP about the amounts of methane that have been released into the sea and there is almost no research to indicate what the effect of methane in sea water is going to be on sea life.

Such studies that exist indicate that methane will rapidly enter into fish and disturb their respiration and nervous systems. The outcome depends upon how much methane the fish ingests; the more methane the more likely the fish will die from gas emboli and nervous system damage. Exposure to small amounts of methane will generally only have a short term effect on fish, which usually make a full recovery, but the effect does appear to vary from species to species.

The oil and the natural gas is now part of the ocean circulation system. Currents will carry it not only to the gulf shores but also to the Atlantic coast of Florida.  

The effects will be traceable and obvious. We may have to take precautions when swimming or eating fish from these regions. I hope not, but time will tell.

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