While the BP oil disaster has received far more attention, elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, oil has been leaking into the water for far longer. The so-called Taylor oil spill began in 2004 but it went largely unnoticed until an investigation by the Associated Press in 2015. Now, federal agencies are finally learning just how much oil has leaked in what has become the longest spill in US history—and it’s looking far worse than the company let on.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a report Monday detailing how many gallons of oil have been spilling a day since powerful waves from 2004's Hurricane Ivan caused an off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico to fall into the ocean, spewing oil onto the ocean floor. Developer Taylor Energy Company, which shut down in 2008, has maintained that the incident has resulted in 3 to 5 gallons leaking a day since the disaster, according to E&E News. This new government study, however, shows that the leakage could be as high as 4,578 gallons a day.
That’s more than 25 million gallons of oil over these 15 years. The Deepwater Horizon Spill, for comparison, resulted in 168 million gallons of oil total.
Federal agencies have long suspected that the amount of oil pouring into the ecosystem was higher than Taylor was estimating. That’s, in part, why the government finally intervened in 2017. It took them long enough after Taylor began arguing that it should be released of further clean up responsibilities in 2010, according to the Times-Picayune.
Research from earlier this year suggested the leak could be as high as 71,400 gallons a day, reports the Times-Picayune. The researchers with NOAA came to their more conservative conclusions after looking at a number of measurements previously ignored. While past estimates involved examining satellite images of oil slicks on the surface of the ocean, this study took this analysis a step further by coupling that data set with independent samples taken from the water and sediment near the disaster site in September 2018. The team of researchers went even further by analyzing the level of gas in the air near the site.
All this painted a pretty clear picture: This situation’s worse than Taylor said.
When Hurricane Ivan—a Category 3 hurricane that killed eight people—pummeled through the Gulf of Mexico, its waves caused a nearly 100-foot undersea mudslide that brought down the structure. With it fell the 28 pipes that were pulling the oil from deep beneath the ocean floor.
“It’s a very complex, complicated system, and it all has to be taken into account,” said author Andrew Mason, a physical scientist at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, to Earther. “You have buried pipes, broken pipes, a combination of oil and gas, and all this is potentially broken. Getting down to those is not a cheap or easy fix.”
Though Taylor has worked to plug nine of these wells and installed a system to collect the escaping oil, that hasn’t stopped the oil from flowing. By 2013, studies began to highlight how these actions could do more harm than good given how intrusive the work was to cap the wells. At that point, the capping efforts stopped. That doesn’t mean work to stanch the flow was abandoned.
Last year, after NOAA’s initial findings, the U.S. Coast Guard installed a separate containment system, which has been collecting some 30,000 gallons of oil over 30 days, per the report. This is the first concrete step toward clean up following NOAA’s findings—and the more science the agency gathers, the more steps it should take to clean up this mess. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight.
All this being said, the Gulf of Mexico deals with a lot of oil on the regular. The Weather Channel reports that about 330,000 gallons of oil enter the Gulf from Louisiana’s coastline each a year. Seems like this body of water that can never catch a break.
Correction: This story previously said that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement installed the containment system last year. It’s been corrected to note that the U.S. Coast Guard did the actual installation.