Spill may be spreading: tar balls wash up in the Florida Keys

Jeremy Hance
May 18, 2010

Florida had an unwelcome visitor today as tar balls washed on shore at Fort Zachary State Park in Key West, reports Reuters. Local officials fear the tar balls—small blobs of oil—originated from the Gulf oil spill caused after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig run by BP exploded, killing eleven. If tests determine that tar balls originated from the spill it would confirm that leaking oil is being carried by an ocean current, known as the Loop Current, from the spill site to Florida's coast.

Besides Florida's delicate coastal ecosystem and its tourism industry, biologists are deeply worried that the oil could reach coral reefs, already stressed by ocean acidification and other forms of pollutions.

The Coast Guard will use a helicopter to search the area for any additional signs of pollution. Indeed, if the oil spill reaches Florida, experts say the Loop Current could carry it all the way to America's East Coast.

In the meantime, BP has had some success in siphoning off oil from the leak using a narrow tube. While the company says it is currently siphoning some 2,000 barrels a day from the spill, the solution is only temporary.

Previously, officials have estimated that the spill is releasing approximately 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. However, scientists looking at video of the gushing oil over a mile deep in the gulf, say that the spill could be far larger than what BP and others have admitted publicly (BP initially estimated the spill at 1,000 barrels a day).

Richard Harris from NPR estimated 70,000 barrels a day—over ten times BP's estimate. If this estimate turns out to be accurate, the oil spill in the Gulf would make Exxon Valdez appear tiny: every four days as much oil would be entering the ecosystem as did during the whole Exxon Valdez disaster. To date, oil has been spilling for 29 days or, according to Harris's estimate, 7 Exxon Valdezes.

However, the video released by BP is short and at this point no one knows for certain just how much oil is spewing into the gulf even with BP's efforts to stem the spill.

The US consumes more oil than any other country in the world. In 2007 the US consumed over 20 million barrels of oil every day: nearly three times as much as the number two consumer in the world, China. For decades the US has focused on producing more oil over increased efficiency, lowering consumption, or focusing on other energy sources.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (May 18, 2010).

Spill may be spreading: tar balls wash up in the Florida Keys.