Last Wednesday, I attended a press conference intended to discuss the cause of the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana that was generated by the explosion and sinking of a drilling rig in deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the repeated interest of the reporters present at the meeting for the secretary of the Navy, with the participation of the secretary admiral, I thought it would be interesting to devote this editorial to the topic. I made this decision as much because of the size of the problem relative to the environmental conditions on the coast of the United States as for any possible effects this spill could have on our Mexican shores and waters.
The explosion that triggered the spill occurred on April 21. Since then, the flow of oil has not stopped, and it is currently flowing at a rate close to 800,000 liters daily, which is by now some 20 million liters of oil. The oil slick has been moving slowly but steadily, approaching the north coast of Louisiana and is situated directly opposite the mouth of the Mississippi River. Even though the spill covers over 1,200 square km, it appears modest in size when viewed on a satellite image of the vast Gulf of Mexico. If we placed the range of the spill over the Federal District, we would see that it completely covered more than 25 percent of the state of Morelos, almost 30 percent of the state of Mexico and 5-7 percent of the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Puebla. This gives us a better idea of its extent.
The edges of the spill are located approximately 900 km from the northernmost part of the coast of Tamaulipas and about 750 km north of the Yucatan Peninsula. The presentation of this data is available at www.conabio.gob.mx.
The tendency of the winds at this time of year is to the north and northeast, which means that as long as this situation continues, the probability that the spill will impact the Mexican coast is extremely low. However, in a few weeks the season of tropical storms and cyclones will begin and their effects, especially those of the cyclones, on the movement of the oil spill is difficult to predict because of their variable paths.
What is clear is that even a tropical storm that isn’t too intense would produce waves a few meters in height. The defenses of the plastic and stone barriers that have been installed along the coast of Louisiana to protect extensive, important wetlands in the area would be totally insufficient to prevent the oil from penetrating inland.
Clearly what Mexico needs to do now is to maintain contact with the relevant authorities who are responsible for the situation in the U.S. (the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior) and use our remote sensing capacity to monitor the course of the spill and the effects the hurricanes could have on its location and disintegration. In addition, we must devote our attention to the migratory species that come into our territory, like mammals such as turtles and birds that could be affected by contact with the oil.
Fortunately, the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas has good estimates about the location of the nesting colonies of Kemp’s ridley and leatherback turtles, which could be especially vulnerable if oil were to reach Mexican beaches. We need to be alert, react quickly and assess the damage to the biodiversity of Mexico in case the oil comes to our shores.