The first thing you notice is the smell. When the wind blows in from the Gulf, it’s like inhaling deeply from a charcoal barbecue that’s been doused with lighter fluid. I’m not sure if it’s the smell of the petroleum or the controlled burns of surface oil by the Coast Guard, but it seems to permeate everything along the coast.

Jeremy Stone, one of Ecotrust Canada’s economic development consultants, has gone to New Orleans, Louisiana during May and June to work on the Gulf oil spill recovery. He will be reporting on his experiences with fisheries and the local economy through a series of blog posts.

It’s been three weeks since a British Petroleum oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. Since then, over four million gallons of crude oil has poured out of an open pipe on the sea floor, and another 200,000 gallons pours out each day.

Although the entire region is in crisis mode, there is little to be done. This is being called a “slow-motion” disaster, and the real effects won’t be known for months or even years. Oil is only now reaching the shoreline, and we’re just beginning to see where it will be most concentrated.

In the meantime, BP and government agencies are trying to contain the amount of oil that will reach land. The first order of business is to shut down the well. A number of ideas are being attempted, from placing a containment dome over the well and siphoning the oil out, to shooting debris into the blowout preventer in order to clog the well. Efforts so far have failed, and the only sure thing, drilling a new well and injecting it with concrete to seal the whole system, will take up to three months to complete. At the current rate that would result in 16 million gallons of crude oil being released into the ecosystem, well over the 11 million gallons released during the Exxon Valdez disaster.

In addition to shutting off the well, the Coast Guard is also trying to stop the oil from reaching land. In some ways, the solutions aren’t much better than the problem. There have been numerous controlled burns that have sent billowing black clouds of soot into the air. More importantly, 400,000 gallons of the dispersant Corexit have been sprayed onto the oil, which binds to the oil and drops it to the floor of the ocean. One of the main ingredients of Corexit is propylene glycol, which depletes dissolved oxygen in the water and basically suffocates fish and other aquatic organisms. Shrimpers are already reporting that marine life is fleeing the area – not only are their nets pulling up no shrimp, but there’s no by-catch either. The sea seems empty.

Besides the threat to birds and fish offshore, the core threat is to the inland estuaries and the economy that depends on them. The Coast Guard is laying out millions of feet of boom to surround the oil, and the local governments are building concrete and sandbag walls between barrier islands to create a shield against the spill. If oil reaches the estuaries, as it is likely to do in some areas, the oyster, crab, and shrimp industries will be destroyed for a decade or more.

While we wait to understand the impact of the disaster, many locals have been debating the future of oil exploration on the coast. Some think it’s too risky, while others claim that it’s one of the few industries that consistently creates jobs. I understand both sides of the debate, but I was surprised by one statistic mentioned on a local radio station this week. Blowout preventers, the key technology that failed to cap the well after the explosion, have a failure rate of approximately 50% in industry testing. It seems that our clean record thus far with drilling has been incredibly lucky, and it suggests a likelihood for similar disasters in the future. It’s hard for me to see how offshore oil drilling in the US and Canada has any allure when compared to the devastating effects that are possible along our coastlines.

– Jeremy Stone