The Gulf Coast Oil Spill: How Does It Compare to Exxon Valdez?


A sign at an animal medical center in Bienville, Miss., reads “Pray for our Gulf” as people continue to monitor the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

So how bad will the Deepwater Horizon oil spill turn out to be?

The president of the National Wildlife Federation, Larry Schweiger, told us it has the potential to be the “worst ecological disaster in U.S. history,” dwarfing the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Schweiger pointed out that the tanker held a finite amount of oil, while the “petrogeyser” a mile down on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico is still pouring thousands of barrels of crude oil into the water.

There are other differences, too. The Exxon Valdez was loaded with a much heavier crude oil than the so-called “sweet, light crude” gushing into the Gulf. It was also a lot colder in Alaska, making the heavy oil even more viscous and that much more difficult to remove. BP’s lighter oil is easier to handle, but it also contains more volatile compounds that can hurt plants and animals.

Schweiger said the Deepwater Horizon spill couldn’t have come at a worse time, because spring is when most species nest and reproduce. He fears an entire generation of hundreds of species will be lost.

The oil will likely damage more than just wetlands and wildlife. The huge slick has been moving slowly north, threatening the beaches of Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Resort communities like Ocean Springs, Gulfport, Biloxi, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Pensacola could be facing oil-polluted shorelines that would devastate the tourism that is so vital to their economies. At the time of this writing some were predicting the edge of the spill might touch the northern coastline in the next two or three days. However, earlier estimates predicted landfall two days ago.

But it’s a rare cloud that doesn’t have a silver lining for somebody. People here in south Louisiana who own the lodging that sport fishermen would have been occupying right now are finding unexpectedly heavy demand from cleanup companies, which need thousands of beds for workers headed this way to help clean up the mess.