Complacency has quickly settled in

Since the 2010 Gulf oil spill, Congress has taken no action to tighten drilling or safety regulations.

In this issue we have brought you some good news. Northwest Florida has experienced phenomenal growth in tourism revenues since the 2010 summer of the oil spill — and Walton County is probably the best example in the region to prove it. That's why we wrote a special report, to show that there can be gold at the end of the rainbow.

But before you go and open those bottles of champagne, it's important for all of us in the 850  — and throughout Florida — to take a moment and listen to the warnings of environmentalists, researchers and scientists. While oil from the Deep Water Horizon disaster is no longer gushing into the Gulf, we need to be ever vigilant about what is going on in those waters that are so important to the economy of our region, and Walton County in particular. This is not the time to put our heads in the sand.

An Associated Press report from 2010 revealed that more than 50,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Gulf's federal waters. Of those, 27,000 have been abandoned. Some are considered "temporarily abandoned," which means the actions taken to plug them may not be the most thorough and long lasting.

Since the 2010 spill, Congress has taken no action to tighten drilling or safety regulations. It seems complacency has quickly settled in. It shouldn't.

There are about 4,000 active wells in the Gulf of Mexico, including three new deep water wells (BP's Galapagos project) that began operation in June. The project is 140 miles southeast of New Orleans — pretty much directly south of Mobile Bay.

So, basically, we're fundamentally ignorant of what's going on in the Gulf because we don't have an independent method of monitoring by a party that doesn't have some skin in the game.

Keep in mind also that Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida and could soon be drilling in its own waters. And we're not the only nation already drilling in the Gulf — so is Mexico.

While the oil spill of April 2010 has faded from the national news — and the consciousness of most Americans — Gulf Coast communities are still grappling with the aftermath. South of New Orleans, oil is still evident. It's also been found off Pensacola — buried under sand, but still there. What happens if a major hurricane hits the area?

Meanwhile, sick and deformed fish and shrimp with tumors or no eyes have been found in deep waters. No one can directly link the problems to the oil spill, although many have their suspicions.

Yet the research capabilities of the U.S. have dwindled. It is the oil companies that usually report spills — and often they are believed to be under-reported or just not reported. Because of federal and state funding cuts, there are now only two ships, including the Weatherbird II from the University of South Florida, with oceanographic capability monitoring the Gulf waters and doing research on the existing wells and the fallout in the Gulf ecosystem from the 2010 accident. So, basically, we're fundamentally ignorant of what's going on in the Gulf because we don't have an independent method of monitoring by a party that doesn't have some skin in the game.

At a June meeting of Gulf Coast business, community, environmental and government leaders organized by the United States Leadership Forum, the battle cry was for more resources to be dedicated to determine exactly what is happening to the Gulf.

What we do know is that drilling will continue. Florida had thought itself safe from disaster — and this time we were just lucky. How do we prepare ourselves for the disasters of the future?

It's critical Northwest Florida understand what's going on in the Gulf, because we must have the information we need to be prepared to respond.

With the millions of BP dollars flowing into the Gulf Coast states as restitution for what happened two years ago, would not some of that money be well spent to restore our capacity for research and monitoring of those wells in the Gulf? Indeed it would not be a trivial investment, at the cost of millions to build a modern research vessel or two or three. But is it not a necessary expense to guarantee the continuation of the healthy tourist economy our coast continues to boast?

We ignore the warnings at our own peril.

Categories: Opinion