Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
by Ronni Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 2
To understand the causes of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and think about our personal involvement.
Preparation and materials
- Download some pictures of the slick from a reputable news site.
- Music suggestion: ‘Fragile’ by Sting, available to download.
- On 22 April, a BP-run oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, working in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of the USA, exploded and sank. All lives were lost on board – 11 men are still missing. We still don’t know what caused the explosion. (Although the rig was being used by BP, it was owned by a different company, Transocean.)
- The rig was drilling for oil, through the sea bed, about a mile down. When the rig sank, the special lock-off mechanism, designed to stop the oil spilling if anything went wrong, failed; and, instead of a seal being formed where the oil was being pumped out, the oil has been leaking out straight into the sea.
- Approximately 5,000 barrels of oil a day have been pouring out ever since the catastrophe. Oil is lighter – less dense – than water, so it floats on the top in a slimy black layer. This has formed a huge slick of oil that is drifting towards the coast of four American states: Alabama, Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
- The coast is an area that is used by many migrating birds, turtles and fish for raising their young, and the threat to the wildlife is huge. Whales are also common here. If birds get coated in oil, they will sink in the water, and they try to get rid of the oil by eating it, and are then poisoned. The oil affects the ability of water to absorb oxygen, so fish can effectively suffocate near the surface. The whales will get coated in the oil, and probably drown as a result.
- The Gulf is an important fishing area for people too, and the fishing fleet has been unable to work for several days, and will not be able to fish while the slick is offshore.
- BP is working closely with the US government and local people to stop the pollution as quickly as possible. Because the borehole is so deep, robot submarines are being used to try to plug it. In the near future, it is thought that a huge ‘dome’ may be lowered over the hole to cap the leak.
- On the surface, the US Coastguard and National Guard are laying a floating boom, which sits on top of the water and physically contains the oil. Special chemicals which disperse the oil, rather like the way soap cleans off dirt, are being sprayed to try and break up the slick. Another possibility is to burn the oil by setting fire to it, but the black smoke released by burning oil causes air pollution.
- Weather conditions will determine how long it will take the slick to reach the shore – the right winds could blow the slick away from the coast and out into the ocean where it will have a far less devastating effect.
- But for now, many of the people whose livelihoods were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina five years ago are waiting to see whether their livelihoods will be lost again, along with much of the local wildlife.
Time for reflection
Spend a few moments discussing what the oil was to be used for:
petrol for cars
fuel for power stations
heating homes and offices
Now reflect with your students on who would be among the users of the fuel oil – ourselves.
Our need for oil, for resources to power our lifestyles, means that we are part of the problem of the requirement for oil among the developed and developing nations.
Light a candle, play the music and allow a few moments’ quiet.
Ask your students to think in silence about how they could reduce their personal carbon footprint, and so reduce the need for oil in our lives.
We think of the people who died in the rig disaster in April.
We remember their families and friends.
And we think of all those who work in dangerous conditions so that we can have the oil that we need to live as we do.
And we think of all those working to stop the oil slick coming ashore in the Gulf of Mexico.
Keep them safe, and may their work be successful.