Another Gulf Oil Spill Shows Need for Better Oversight

There's growing frustration along the Louisiana coast over the lack of answers about the origin of a new oil spill in the Gulf.

First reported over the weekend, the oil has been washing ashore in places along a 30-mile stretch of the coast from Grand Isle south of New Orleans west to Timbalier Island. About a half-mile of shoreline in total has been affected, according to the Coast Guard.

The agency has notified Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners of Houston that preliminary samples of oil collected from Elmer Island west of Grand Isle match those from one of the company's wells damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the company -- which disclosed spilling less than 5 gallons of oil in its report to the National Response Center, where spills are logged -- questions whether it's responsible for all of the oil washing ashore.

"We do not believe the spill along the coast is the result of our operations," said Anglo-Suisse CEO John Sherwood. "However, when the Coast Guard informed us that this might be the case, the responsible thing to do was mobilize."

That raises the question of whether the company significantly under-reported the spill -- or whether there is another source for the oil.

Earlier this week, Jonathan Henderson with the Gulf Restoration Network flew over the area from Timbalier Bay to Grand Isle to take a closer look and described what he saw:

We came across an area of obvious weathered oil and an oily sheen. This area, surrounding the Hercules platform, appeared to have oil coming up from below the surface. Still, with the amount of sheen visible on the horizon, we were not convinced that this area was the source or at least not the lone source. We continued east toward Grand Isle, then headed due south until we came across a massive amount of new oil including huge oil patties, streamers below the surface, and plumes. We also noticed some sort of activity by crew boats and a huge vessel that appeared to be a storage tanker for crude oil.

Henderson said it appeared that oil was coming from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a major oil transfer station in the Gulf. Also pointing to problems at LOOP was an analysis of satellite imagery by Skytruth.

While the exact origin of the spill remains under investigation, the incident highlights the ubiquity of oil contamination in the Gulf.

According to National Response Center data analyzed by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), 3,638 toxic releases were reported in Louisiana in 2009 -- including more than 50 million gallons of oil.

Equipment failure led to about 56 percent of accidents reported. And even though there was relatively little tropical storm activity in 2009, hurricanes still accounted for 31 percent of the accidents. But many of the reports cited 2005's Hurricane Katrina and Rita and 2008's Gustav as the cause, indicating damage from those storms had yet to be repaired.

Offshore oil operation are not the only source of oil pollution in the state, either: LABB reports that state records shows that Louisiana's 17 oil refineries averaged 10 accidents a week from 2005 to 2009.

Environmental advocates say the latest spill points to the need for better federal oversight of the oil industry. The current regulatory system relies on the polluters to turn themselves in and accurately report what they've spilled -- even though they're subject to fines based on the amount released. At the same time, as Skytruth has noted, the companies know it's unlikely state and federal regulators will dispatch anyone to check on an incident, especially if it's relatively small.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement recently issued its third permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf since last year's BP disaster and implementation of new safety standards. However, environmental advocates say this latest spill shows the need for even better oversight.

"This newest failure of industry and government again reinforces the need for a Regional Citizens Advisory Council that will have the resources to ensure that response plans are adequate and properly executed when necessary," said GRN's Henderson.

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