Tom Patton: Looping the Loop
There is also a difference of opinion about whether the oil is dangerously close to what is called the “loop current,” a fast-moving flow that loops up into the gulf before sweeping down towards the Florida Keys, through the Straits of Florida and joins the Gulf Stream.
The latest (Sunday night) situation report from the State of Florida EOC indicates that:
“According to the NOAA oil plume model, the oil spill is 70 miles southwest of Pensacola, 165 miles from Port St. Joe, 275 miles from St. Petersburg, and 20 miles from the Loop Current."
“Direct oil impacts are not expected across the Florida coastline through at least the next 72 hours. Shower and thunderstorm activity in the impact area Sunday and Monday may hamper deepwater operations across the northern-central gulf. Rain should end by sunrise Tuesday.”
Governor Charlie Crist has issued declared a state of emergency in 19 counties.
The Commandant of the Coast Guard said in a news conference Friday that Florida faces “no imminent threat” from the spreading slick, and if there is a threat, it is to the panhandle. But with the oil reportedly only 20 miles from the loop current, it would appear that that assessment will change. A simple shift of the wind could push oil into the loop current, and a big portion of the Florida economy is at risk.
I spoke over the weekend to a very conservative individual who works in the Scuba industry, selling gear to dive shops who re-sell it at retail, or use it as rental equipment. An avid fisherman and diver, he’s probably as sensitive to the health of coral reefs as anyone. He said, and I agree, that if the oil gets into the loop current, it could deal a devastating blow to the Florida economy.
Coral reefs are fragile, and the animals that create them are not capable of surviving in an oily environment. Coral reefs draw small fish which draw big fish. They also draw divers by the thousands who explore, photograph, spearfish, and spend money. Recreational fishermen, too, spend hundreds of dollars each per day for the privilege of chasing the fish that are drawn to the reefs. Tourism, and in large part recreational diving and fishing, are one of the stringers that hold up the Florida economy, and with few exceptions, the people who run the dive shops and the fishing boats and bait stores and marinas are small business owners who rely on a steady stream of tourists for their survival. If the reefs are damaged and the fish are gone, many of those small businesses will not survive.
As the loop current comes around through the keys and joins the gulf stream, the oil could be transported within a mile of the beaches of south Florida: South Beach, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Pompano. All are near enough to the Gulf Stream to be affected directly by the oil. By the time the Gulf Stream comes this far north, it’s far enough offshore that we might not see the oil sheen on the water, but it’s a pretty fair bet that we’ll have tar balls washing up on our beaches. Not devastating, but not pretty either.
The world runs on oil, and that’s likely going to be the case for the foreseeable future. Petroleum touches nearly everything on which modern conveniences depend, so it’s unlikely that the search for oil is going to wind down, nor should it. One major catastrophe like this is one too many, but oil rigs like Deepwater Horizon pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil from the Gulf of Mexico every day. BP needed a much better contingency plan, to be sure, but by all accounts there were safety procedures and equipment in place that were intended to prevent this kind of catastrophe.
It’s a very difficult position in which to be. We need oil, but we need to find a way to stave off the environmental and potential economic disasters that can stem from this kind of an accident, and increased government regulations are rarely the answer. The path BP takes in addressing the aftermath of this spill, and it will be a long process, will be critical to the response of the U.S. government. In the meantime, Florida small businesses that rely on tourism, the health of the coral reefs and ocean ecosystem will be warily watching the loop current, as the spill, like ash from an Icelandic volcano, impacts people and economies far from its point of origin.