Resources to Help You Put the Oil-Spill Story in Context

For days, the Coast Guard sent out assuring messages that an oil spill and rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico was containable, that there was "ample time" to react and that the oil company could pretty much handle things.

Now, the oil spill has become a growing environmental and political crisis that touched off a large-scale government, industry and volunteer response. Thursday, President Barack Obama deployed "every single available resource."

The Associated Press reported on the crisis

" 'I am frightened for the country, for the environment,' David Kennedy, assistant chief of the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press. 'This is a very, very big thing, and the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling.' "

The Coast Guard imposed new shipping restrictions into the mouth of the Mississippi River as the oil spill seeping from a collapsed Gulf rig spreads further toward land and into the nation's most important shipping lane. The river is not closed, but traffic is slowing, in part, to keep ships from being damaged by the oil. If ships pass through the oil, it can spread the slick even further.

The Coast Guard has provided maps, photos and additional information on its website. Here is a map of where the oil sheen is likely to be through Friday night. The Coast Guard says Alabama and Mississippi could have oil reaching their shores before Monday.

How does this spill compare with others?

Here is a list of 10 historic oil spills, as well as a more in-depth list of oil spills over the last several decades. The largest Gulf spill occurred in 1979.

America's most famous spill was the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. This spill is significantly smaller than that one.

The Associated Press said

"If the well cannot be closed, almost 100,000 barrels of oil, or 4.2 million gallons, could spill into the Gulf before crews can drill a relief well to alleviate the pressure. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, leaked 11 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989."

What could be threatened?

The coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are all in some peril. The worry goes beyond sea birds. The Christian Science Monitor explained:

" 'The challenge with this type of oil is it's going to float, and depending on what the wind and waves do it may stick around for a while either mixing out there at sea or ultimately it could show up on shore somewhere and that poses other issues,' said Tom Brosnan of NOAA's Assessment and Restoration Division. 'As you get closer to the shorelines you tend to find richer life.'

"Along coasts, birds are a big concern. When coated in oil, birds' feathers lose their ability to trap air and repel water. The result: Birds can't hold in heat and they become hypothermic, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. To keep warm, an oil-coated bird will increase its metabolism, which takes energy and so means a greater need for food. Unfortunately, at the same time the sticky feathers can disrupt the bird's buoyancy so it doesn't float as well. The sinking makes it tricky for the bird to snag much-needed food.

"But coastal species aren't the only wildlife potentially threatened by the spill. Here are some of the animals that might come into contact with the oil slick as it moves out in the open ocean, Brosnan said:

• "Fish: open-water species, such as tuna, sailfish and Jacks
• "Birds: pelagic birds, such as shearwaters and frigate birds
• "Mammals: fin whales, sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins
• "Turtles: loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys"

The New Orleans Times-Picayune said at least seven sperm whales have been seen in the vicinity of the spill. So far, though, none are known to be in danger.


The spill comes at a critical time. Reuters reported that Gulf menhaden, a fish used in the fish meal and fish oil business, is one of the two most harvested fish species in America and could be "badly affected" by a spill. The harvest season just opened April 19 in some Gulf Coast states. Reuters said that bluefin, which are endangered, could also be affected. Their eggs float near the surface, and it is spawning season right now.

The political fallout

The effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could spread far beyond the Louisiana coast, all the way to Capitol Hill as politicians reassess their stands on coastal exploration. The White House admitted Thursday the spill could affect future drilling plans.

Politicians such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist once supported the idea of offshore drilling. This week, however, Crist joined others who said the spill is a setback to drilling plans.

But even as the spill was moving toward shore Thursday, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana told fellow senators that the spill should not be a reason to begin limiting off-shore shore drilling.

Greenpeace is asking the public to pressure the Obama administration not to allow further coastal exploration.

Sampling of local coverage

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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