Earth Week 2015: BP Oil Spill update

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

So, what’s going on with the Gulf of Mexico? The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 5 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)
Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)

A lot has happened since then – clean-up efforts have been partially successful, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. On the 5 year anniversary of the spill, news organizations and government agencies alike have compiled information for the public and put them in graphic form.

OnEarth Magazine, magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, put together an infographic explaining what scientists know about wildlife deaths, which total in the millions (click-through for full image):

BP oil spill OnEarth

The AP also created a beautiful interactive scrolling image that catalogs the Gulf’s health 5 years after the spill. Categories include the health of the seafloor, mammals, crustaceans, the food web, marshes, birds, fish, water quality, turtles, and beaches before and after the spill. Spoiler alert: every data point except one, the red snapper population numbers, has decreased since the spill (click-through for the full image):

AP gulf oil spill interactive

Here’s a more comprehensive list of what’s been happening since BP was found liable for the oil spill:

1. A study in January 2015: found there may be close to 10 million gallons of oil stuck in the bottom of the Gulf. The scientists speculate the oil may have come from microorganisms digesting it and discarding it on the sea floor, and the extra oil may cause lesions (or death) to deep-sea creatures that live there.

2. The White House has proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations. If passed, deep-sea drilling rigs, like the BP rig that exploded, will “tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells,” according to the New York Times. This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

If passed, these regulations would be the third of their kind. In 2010, the Department of the Interior introduced new regulations on drilling well casings. In 2012, the DOI announced tighter regulations on the cementing of wells.

3. Cat Island, once one of the four largest bird-nesting grounds in Louisiana, has been disintegrated by the oil from the BP oil spill. Yes – an entire island is gone. National Geographic reports that the spill killed the mangrove trees on the island, the roots of which made up the sediment traps to make Cat Island an actual island. Since there is nothing to hold the sediment, the island has washed away. The 5.5 acre island was once home to rare and endangered birds, including the brown pelican, who’s habitat has been ravaged by the oil spill. Many brown pelicans were also found dead on the shores shortly after the spill. Watch the video below for more:

4. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continues to work through restoration projects throughout the Gulf, all of which can be seen in this interactive map. NOAA, along with other government agencies, is working with the $700 million pool they have to work on restoration projects revolving around barrier islands, dunes, marshes, shorelines, and oyster beds, along with wildlife issues and recreation areas. For more from NOAA, visit their Response and Restoration website.

Restoration will continue until oil stops washing up on shore or until BP’s money runs out. Craving more? Check out OnEarth’s 5 years later series.

Check back Wednesday 4/22 for Earth Week 3: Happy Earth Day!


Outdoor Exploration: National Bison Range

I took advantage of one more nice Montana weekend and headed out to the National Bison Range in Dixon, Montana.

The range was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to protect a bison herd that was placed there in 1909. Since then, the reserve has housed anywhere between 350 and 500 bison, but is also home to elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, bears, bobcats and birds.

I got to see some bison and look at the Mission Mountains – some of the most beautiful in Montana! Check out some pictures from my trip:

National Bison Range

Antler sculpture at the entrance to the range
Antler sculpture at the entrance to the range
Mission Mountains from inside the refuge
Mission Mountains from inside the refuge

mission mountains

We ended the day at the Garden of 1000 Buddhas!
We ended the day at the Garden of 1000 Buddhas!

Under Western Skies (Tuesday, Part 1)

On Monday, I started my journey up to Canada for my poster presentation at the Under Western Skies conference. My Jeep took me from sunny Missoula to a snowy Calgary, Alberta.

UWS logo

The conference started with a traditional Blackfoot blessing by an elder. He introduced the conference by talking about how we should take every day as a blessing, mentioning that he welcomes the sun every morning despite cloud cover. He also mentioned that we should all look at the Earth as if we are children, so that we can be inquisitive and receptive, as to “learn lessons we have forgotten from the creator.”

The next speaker was Justice Thomas Berger, currently a practicing lawyer in Vancouver, who stopped an Arctic-to-Alberta pipeline 40 years ago by showing the courts evidence of animal migration patterns, mostly. He was appointed in the 70’s to figure out whether a pipeline should be run from the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie River Valley in the Northwest Territories that would have been the largest ever of it’s time. At the time of this project, Berger was a Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

He shot down the pipeline by citing antelope calving grounds, migratory bird patterns and beluga whale breeding grounds as barriers to development. Other reasons included increased need for infrastructure in the area, discrepancy with Aboriginal/First Nations/Indigenous people’s lands (aka Native Americans, for those of you reading this from the U.S.) and obvious environmental dangers a pipeline would raise, including spills.

Historic photo shown during the conference of Berger defending native land and wildlife through his decision to deny the pipeline.

In the end, Berger told the council/court that the area should stay wilderness forever “because there are some places that should remain in their natural states for future generations. We are stewards, we are not required to use [wilderness] up.” He did propose that a pipeline go in a different area away from animals and water, under the condition that the Canadian government settle all land rights with the Indigenous peoples in this area and create a wildlife refuge to save the animals he saved. They did both of these things.

My reflection on this is as follows: why can’t the United States do this? The Canadian government use his expertise to check out the pipeline destination. Berger traveled all across Canada in every direction talking to activists, Indigenous people, and those otherwise in the way of the proposed pipeline. After taking everything into account, he didn’t only shoot down the pipeline proposal, but added terms for the Canadian government to meet in case they wanted to build a different pipeline. Take that as you will.

After Berger brought down the house, members of the organization “Idle No More” took the stage to do the same. This group is a grassroots movement which has three values: revolutionary education, Indigenous sovereignty and the protection of land and water. “Idle No More” organizes dance mobs all over Canada in support for Indigenous freedom, explaining to the public that the Canadian government is oppressing their land rights.

Idle No More vision from their website
Idle No More vision from their website

Panelists all shared the same values of community, land and environmental issues. Panelists included community activist and education Dr. Alex Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree Nation from Manitoba), professor Sylvia McAdam (Sawsewayhum tribe, direct descendent of signatories of Treaty 6), student and advocate Erica Violet Lee (Cree from Saskatoon) and white settler, teacher and PhD student Sheelah McLean (who grew up in Treaty 6 territory).

Location of Treaty Lands in Canada. Calgary is on Treaty 7 lands.
Location of Treaty Lands in Canada. Calgary is on Treaty 7 lands.

Wilson talked about her educational role in “Idle No More.” She also explained some environmental issues going on her tribal lands in Manitoba, including nuclear waste, logging, mining and river delta damage.

Lee explained how aboriginal youth are gaining mobilization in their communities, as they are very aware of the issues plaguing their people.

McLean talked a little bit about how her experience was growing up on Treaty 6 lands as a “white settler.” Now she is a leader in “Idle No More” events and explained how IDM needs to break down white supremacy and patriarchy in Canada.

McAdam feels she isn’t an activist, but is just defending her homeland. She doesn’t see herself as a Canadian, and instead sees herself as a citizen of Treaty 6 and her tribe. She also believes that Canada and the British Monarchy are taking advantage of her homeland for logging purposes, and that these actions are violating treaty rights. McAdam also talked about the impending water crisis, explaining that many Indigenous nations in Canada and the United States are undergoing these problems. She mentioned that she heard of the freshwater crisis first as a tribal prophesy when she was child, but she can’t believe that she is seeing the issue plaguing communities in her lifetime.

“It’s not a bad thing to hug the trees. But you have to remember who’s lands those trees are on,” McAdams reminded us.

Tune in for part 2 tomorrow, which covers the second half of Tuesday and my poster presentation.

Outdoor Exploration: Grand Teton National Park

In May, I was able to visit Yellowstone National Park. On the way down from Montana to Boulder, CO (my destination), we also got to drive through the Grand Teton National Park.

Grand Tetons Mountain Range
Grand Teton Mountain Range

These are the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen – okay, you got me. I think this about every new mountain range I see. But, if you’ve seen them in person, you know they are beautiful.

Mount Moran - second highest peak in the mountain range
Mount Moran – second highest peak in the mountain range

We didn’t have enough time to go on a multi-day hike, so we just drove through and took a few short walks at the overlooks.

Grand Teton peak

We got stopped by buffalo/bison here, too!


And a baby bison even posed for me, with a beautiful backdrop:

Baby bison posing in Grand Tetons National Park
Baby bison posing in Grand Teton National Park

That is it for my Montana and Wyoming adventures for a while. Stay tuned for my Colorado adventures!

Bison in Grand Teton National Park
Bison in Grand Teton National Park

**All photos are mine.