Rumors have been circulating for the last couple of weeks about the possibility of another oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico emanating from the Ocean Saratoga, a drilling rig about 12 miles southeast of the southern tip of the Mississippi Delta.
Turns out they were true. Sort of.
A report this evening confirmed that the spill is indeed real, but it's very small — less than a barrel a day of oil is leaking into the gulf. And according to Taylor Energy the spill isn't coming from the Ocean Saratoga, but from a long-abandoned hole in the vicinity.
Satellite images compiled by SkyTruth over the course of the last month show the slick:
As you can see, oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster dwarfs the slick here. And with natural oil seeps pouring as much as 1.4 million barrels into the Gulf each year, it's not wise to make a mountain out what strongly appear to be a molehill.
Granted, oil companies haven't done much to garner public trust lately, but Taylor Energy's statement indicates that the spill was caused by a landslide on the seafloor after Hurricane Ivan rolled through the area in 2004. Since then, the company said it has been operating a (mostly) successful subsea containment system to capture oil from the destroyed well.
It's worth pointing out that for the decade ending in 2008 (ie, before the Deepwater Horizon spill), natural oil seeps accounted for 9 times more oil discharged into U.S. waters than all the spills in the oil industry put together.
Still, the saga of the Ocean Saratoga and its nearby well highlights a worrying trend: from 2000 until 2009, oil spills on offshore rigs nearly quadrupled, and the number of barrels spilled per year increased compared to overall production, according to this analysis of records from the Minerals Management Service.
More broadly, there is the massive uncertainty about how many spills go unrecorded. The MMS has shown itself to be an inept regulatory agency riddled with corruption, but assumptions are dangerous.
What we do know is that 1. the Gulf ecosystem can handle a constant, relatively small amount of oil that naturally seeps into the sea every year, and 2. when independent observers start looking hard at oil and gas extraction activities in the Gulf, previously unreported leaks are found.
The major question that remains unanswered is: do unreported spills and leaks add enough oil to the Gulf to pose a significant hazard to marine life? Environmentalists might argue that any amount of oil is too much, but interestingly, the million-plus barrels of oil naturally flowing into the sea annually don't support that argument — nature it seems, is somewhat more complex than that.