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Gulf of Mexico Foundation
Commentary on Current Events

by Dr. Quenton Dokken, GMF President/CEO

August 16, 2021 - The Mississippi Canyon 252 Macondo well appears to be history. It ceased discharging crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico nearly three weeks ago. NOAA has subsequently issued a report estimating that 75% of the spilled oil has been captured, burned, consumed by oil eating bacteria, and/or evaporated leaving 25% of the spilled material distributed throughout the Gulf of Mexico water column where it continues to be further degraded by natural processes.Dr. Quenton Dokken

This blowout had serious direct impact on a few coastal communities, particularly those just to the east of the Mississippi Delta. Many more coastal communities were economically impacted more by public perception than the reality of the spill. On the positive side, the response appears to have been effective in minimizing the environmental impact. Studies over the next few years will more accurately describe the economic and environmental impacts, but for now we can begin moving back to our normal lifestyles of living and working in the Gulf of Mexico coastal zone.

Tourism and the associated fisheries industries were hardest hit by perception; and this impact was felt in all five of the Gulf states. At the Gulf of Mexico Foundation we received inquiries as to whether or not it would be safe to vacation on the Yucatan Peninsula just two weeks after the blowout occurred! People were scared and confused. I’ve volunteered to assist the Louisiana Office of Tourism where possible as they work to undo any misperceptions about Louisiana being a premier tourism destination. Before the blowout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were great places to vacation and they still are! The beaches are pristine and the fishing is great.

Commercial and recreational fisheries were basically shut down during the spill not because it was proven that fishery products were contaminated, but because the possibility existed. And, it was incumbent upon NOAA and the EPA to first and foremost protect public health. They did this effectively and are now reopening the fisheries.

As I’ve noted in earlier commentaries, the chronic impacts from a myriad of human activities are the real threat to the Gulf of Mexico. It is imperative that every industry, community, and individual join in the effort to address these impacts which, although not as visible or dramatic as an oil well blowout, are the cancers that continually degrade the habitats and ecosystems of this great body of water.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation exists to combat all negative forces that threaten the health, productivity, and sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico as one of North America’s greatest assets. We are part of an army of tens of thousands working toward the same goal. As the situations requires, we will lead or follow, and never get in the way of effective efforts. Our children’s futures are at stake. Please join us.

July 27, 2021 - Thankfully, last week BP was able to cap the Mississippi Canyon 252 wellhead and drillers are getting closer to tapping into the well with the relief well! This particular well could be history by month’s end. The science community is engaged and has taken a stance against geo-engineering without proper scientific and engineering studies. A dozen or so investigations into the how/why this blowout occurred are on-going and already government agencies have been reorganized to provide more effective oversight of drilling activities. In today’s news it was announced that Mr. Bob Dudley would be replacing Mr. Tony Hayward as CEO of BP. It may be an understatement to say the Mississippi Canyon 252 blowout has changed the Gulf of Mexico energy industry significantly and the way we who live on the Gulf coast view business and industry and government oversight.

Since April, the blowout has focused our attention on a single source of environmental degradation, spilled oil. Now it is time to refocus on all the sources of impacts. The blowout and resulting spill was acute, immediate, and dramatic, but no more threatening than the impacts of coastal development, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, shipping, and the myriad of other direct and non-point sources of pollution and sources of habitat degradation. These impacts have been occurring for generations and will grow even more intense with growing populations. They are not as dramatic or immediate and seldom get attention on the front page or from the seemly endless number of talk shows that dominate the media today. But, make no mistake - they are the primary threat to the productivity and sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

Personal onsite observations and those of Ryan Fikes, Deputy Director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation (read his report), present a somewhat different picture of reality than what has been commonly reported in the media. Our observations suggest that the efforts to keep the oil out of the marshes were effective. Granted, oil did reach some marsh area, but not in the quantities that would have occurred if the massive effort to restrict it to open water had not been employed. The well has been capped – it is now time to focus on measured fact and not speculation and hyperbole.

We must also focus on the economy of the Gulf of Mexico. Along with environmental health, economic productivity is a cornerstone of quality of life on the Gulf coast. We must have quality jobs and business opportunities just as we must have a healthy and productive environment. Driving industries away is not an option, but industry must operate in an environmentally safe manner. We must address not only standard operational procedures and oversight, but also technology to protect the environment. Many small businesses were damaged in the spill area and it is imperative that efforts and actions be implemented to minimize any continued economic impact.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation is working with all of our partners to respond to habitat restoration needs. We will be expanding our education programming and working with industry to keep the environment in planning and operations. We appreciate your support.

July 14, 2021 - Once again I traveled across Louisiana; this time on my way to Baton Rouge to meet with state officials to discuss habitat restoration - lots of work to do in Louisiana. My traveling companion on this trip was Wayne Johnson, Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. Traveling east on I-10 above the magnificent cypress swamps between Lake Charles and Baton Rouge one cannot help but be awed by this vast world of water that south Louisianans call home. The people of Louisiana have been blessed with perhaps the greatest accumulation of natural aquatic resources in North America!

GMF Executive Director Dr. Quenton Dokken
GMF Executive Director Dr. Quenton Dokken after TV interview on oil spill on June 3 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The spill from the Mississippi Canyon 252 blowout continues, but progress is being made in containment and diversion efforts, and there is guarded optimism that the spill could be stopped within the next few days. Considering that it took 10 months to stop the IXTOC I blowout in 1979, it will be an impressive feat if this actually happens. Granted, word on the street suggests that the blowout should not have happened in the first place, but the response has been impressive. Still, my primary criticism is that the oil and gas industry and government oversight agencies had not conducted “what if this happens” drills in advance and developed the needed technology to respond at the wellhead in the event of a blowout at 5,000 feet. As in IXTOC I industry and government started trying to figure out what to do at the wellhead after the blowout occurred. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!

It is fact that the oil and gas drilling and production industry has an impressive safety track record in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the 30,000+ wells that have been drilled there have been only two uncontrolled blowouts, IXTOC I and Mississippi Canyon 252. Numerically, this is an impressive safety record by any standard. But the reality is that, due to the acute and catastrophic immediate impacts of such events, we must demand reasonable assurances of a 100% safety record. We’ve got work to do in all segments of the industry and government.

Speaking of IXTOC I, Ramon Antonio Vargas provides a good historical perspective of the IXTOC I spill in the July 4 edition of the Times-Picayune. As I’ve commented before, the IXTOC I spill is the model we should use to predict how the Mississippi Canyon spill will behave in the near-term and long-term time scale. IXTOC I was acute and disastrous in the near-term time frame, but of no consequence in the long-term time frame due to the power of natural processes to heal the environmental wounds of the Gulf of Mexico. We can only hope that history will repeat itself in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

One blog that I track is hosted by Dr. Len Bahr. Len is a friend and although I do not always agree with his opinion, I do admire his courage in honestly addressing the issues of Louisiana, his adopted and much beloved home state. Len has not shown deference to any sacred cows, political, economic, or other. He is putting facts, truth, and reality on the table! Much to some peoples’ discomfort, Len and I both believe that you cannot fix a problem if you do not put it on the table for all to see and work on. This can be a painful process but it is essential if we are going to fix our failures.

I have tried to position the Gulf of Mexico Foundation as an organization whose actions are based on facts and the truths those facts support. Forget the spin – put it all on the table and let the chips fall where they may. I will continue to do so. We all must openly address our weaknesses, our failures, and our responsibilities. We must work together as a community – as a family.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation has invested in habitat restoration in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas; we will continue to do so. The natural habitats captured within the state boundaries of Louisiana are critical to the ecological productivity and sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico, and the people and cultures of Louisiana are a vital part of the tapestry that makes up the Gulf of Mexico community. From our discussions with Louisiana State officials we are working to increase our investments in habitat restoration in Louisiana. The GMF will also maintain a focus on the other Gulf States, all of which are vital components of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. We’ve got to take care of the environment and economy.

June 18, 2021 - Although reduced by containment/diversion efforts, the Mississippi Canyon 252 blowout continues to leak oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The first relief well is still 30+ days away from completion and the spill response effort continues to dominate the media, Congress, and President Obama’s Administration. And, regardless of any actions taken, BP can do no right in the public’s eyes.

The economic dynamics of the impacted areas are changing from economies based on fishing and tourism to economies based on spill response efforts. Daily, the media shows us people whose traditional way of life is being changed. But, the media has focused little attention on those who are making significant money off the spill response efforts. Make no mistake, as some people are being negatively impacted others are profiting and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The $20+ billion that BP will spend will flow through the communities of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The economic impact is being compounded by restrictions on current and planned drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico. Keep in mind that no amount of anger and desire for vengeance will change the fact that the oil/gas industry is the foundation of the Gulf of Mexico economy. Its direct impact through jobs and businesses and its indirect impact through the other industries of the Gulf of Mexico are undeniable and irreplaceable.

The environmental impact is heartbreaking. Images that are circling the globe showing suffering wildlife are hard to forget, as are the images of oil on beaches and in estuaries. This impact has immediate ramification on the lives of coastal residents; after all, environmental quality is a cornerstone of the quality of life we all seek. Fortunately, the history of hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico, natural and human inputs, suggests that this is not a generational impact, but rather an acute short-term impact. Nature has dealt successfully with spill impacts in the past and will do so again.

Numerous investigations are on-going; but, none that am I aware of have been completed. Yet, as we all watched this week, Congress is still demanding answers that do not yet exist. No doubt much to his chagrin, Tony Hayward of BP is learning why he is paid the big bucks – “the buck” must stop somewhere. When watching the Congressional hearings, one cannot help but to wonder where some of the questions are coming from - just what purpose do they serve? When the cameras roll, lots of drama and theater are on display.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation has been involved in habitat restoration for more than a decade and will be for decades to come. If you want to help sustain the Gulf of Mexico as an invaluable biological resource, push the GMF's “Register/Donate” button on our website. Your support will be invested in our habitat restoration projects. Until we visit again, keep looking for facts and the truths these facts present.

June 7, 2021 – Once again Franklin and I have toured across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama observing oil impacts. Last Friday, totally unplanned, we led the President’s motorcade into Grand Isle, Louisiana – at least we did until the phalanx of motorcycle policemen made us pull over while they passed. Oh well, we were at the head of the parade for a few minutes.

In today’s national print media there are two interesting stories: 1) in the New York Times, "In Gulf It Was Unclear Who Was in Charge of Rig," by Ian Urbina with contributions by Robbie Brown and Tom Zeller, and 2) in the Washington Post, "BP Says It Sees Some Progress in Capping Gulf Well, Collecting Oil," by Lyndsey Layton. As the official investigations progress, and there are several, the story of the event and weaknesses of the operational structure on drilling rigs is starting to come to light. Urbina begins to detail some of this information which will undoubtedly lead to changes in the industry and government oversight. One change I hope to see is that third-party oversight with no financial interest in the drilling operation or ultimate production output is made mandatory on all drilling operations. Someone with no financial interest needs to have unchallenged authority to shut the operation down if problems occur.

In Layton’s article the most telling point to me was a quote of comments by Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi that he apparently made on a Fox News program on Sunday. From Layton’s article, “Our tourist season has been hurt by the misperception of what’s going on down here,” Barbour is quoted as saying, “The coast is clear. Come on down.” This is exactly what Franklin and I witnessed! The beaches are not coated from one end to the other. People were playing on the beaches and in the water. Fishers were fishing and boaters were boating.

There are areas of impact. I can only assume that Grand Isle is one such area since that is where the President was taken. However, just three miles away at Port Fourchon, the beaches were clear and clean. From news reports we believed that Dauphin Island, Alabama, was heavily impacted. What we found was that, as of last Thursday, a patch of oil about 20 feet in diameter had hit the beach, but not much else. However, in the water column offshore there were substantial amounts of small oil globs, each about the size of a quarter.

Immediately following the spill, the science community identified bays, marshes, and estuaries as the most critical habitats to protect. And, it appears that the use of dispersants and massive efforts to place booms and skim oil from the surface while still offshore appear to have been at least partially effective in minimizing impacts in those critical habitats. Not perfect – but just imagine what the coast would look like if these efforts had not been implemented.

The blowout at Mississippi Canyon 252 has highlighted a boat load of contradictions. On the one hand there is the demonization of BP as exemplified by the gross shouting of obscenities at BP during the closing of the MTV Awards ceremony on June 6. Contrast that to the article from The Courier published in Houma, Louisiana, by Kathrine Schmidt, entitled “Ban may devastate local firms.” President Barack Obama’s ban on new deepwater drilling will devastate many local businesses and their workers, executive said Thursday.

“That was the stability for south Louisiana over the last couple of years,” Walter Thomassie, general manager with Thoma-Sea Shipbuilders in Lockport, said of deepwater drilling. “Deepwater exploration keeps us going. The economy as a whole in U.S. is not good. Deepwater exploration was a bright spot in a gloomy economic outlook.”

I would guess that BP was operating along general industry standards; this event could have happened to any driller/producer in the Gulf – this is an industry problem. The offshore oil and gas industry is the foundation of the economy of most Gulf coast states. The products of the oil/gas industry are critical to every state in the nation – every individual in the nation. Much of the drama on stage today has one purpose – move more money from the oil/gas industry and federal government into the pockets of others. Personal injury lawyers are capturing as many clients as possible, knowing that they will keep a significant portion of any awards. Strategies are in play to use the federal spill response fund to build new land (i.e. sand berms) without any consideration of the consequences, environmental or monetary.

Absolutely, those who have been impacted economically deserve fair compensation. Unfortunately, “fair” is not a part of the equation. At some point common sense must prevail. It would not be wise to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs while on an emotionally charged rampage.

For nine years the Gulf of Mexico Foundation has partnered with NOAA to implement the Community-based Restoration Program, along with the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, in the Gulf States and Caribbean Territories. We are monitoring the impact of this spill on those habitats we have helped to restore. No doubt we will be increasing our habitat restoration efforts to address not only the impacts of the Mississippi Canyon 252 blowout, but also the even more damaging chronic impacts coming from direct and non-point sources of pollution. You can help – go to and donate. Your contributions will be invested well.

May 25, 2021 – Unfortunately, the well blowout in Mississippi Canyon 252 continues to flow, which is not surprising. As I noted in earlier commentary, the technology to respond to such events is lacking. A legitimate criticism of the oil and gas industry – they have advanced drilling and production technology with in-adequate attention to the technology to respond to events such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

I’ve watched the “demonization” of BP with wonderment and alarm. I have had the pleasure of working with BP engineering and environmental professionals for over two decades. I can tell you without question, they are professional in every sense of the word and dedicated to maintaining the social, corporate, and environmental standards set by our society. The Deepwater Horizon event is just as devastating to them as to anyone else – perhaps more so – and the company and the industry will pay dearly for this accident for years to come.

I’ve heard seemly endless criticism that BP officials have not been forthcoming with information. Does this surprise anyone – really? BP supports tens of thousands of high paying jobs around the world, they support thousands of service industry businesses, and they represent tens of billions of dollars in stock values. Personal injury lawyers began assembling and filing class action lawsuits within days of the blowout. Do you think it would be wise to let media and litigation interests try the merits of the case on the front page before it even gets to court? Congressmen on the hearing panels know this, but still it is presented as evil intent on the part of BP. In truth, they have no choice.

I’ve heard and read critical statements from the science community that BP officials were hiding the true flow volumes from the well and several scientists have made their own estimates of flow rates. Yet, there has been a manic effort to make BP “confess” to greater flow volumes than estimated. From a scientific perspective, why does it matter what flow rates BP and government estimators present? Those with a technical background to do so have already made their estimates. For scientific purposes it is immaterial what rates are presented by BP.

On May 20, I had the privilege to speak before a gathering of marine policy professionals at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This group of luminaries was gathered to address the Law of the Sea Convention Treaty which has been stalled in the U.S. for decades. I enjoyed my time with this group. Although I can never stick to a script, I did write up the essence of my presentation which follows. I hope my comments help to keep logic, facts, and truth at the forefront.

- Dr. Quenton Dokken, GMF Executive Director

Dr. Dokken's Presentation at the Law of the Sea Convention Conference
National Press Club, Washington, D.C., May 20, 2021

The Sky Is Falling! Or Is It?

In an interview with Mr. Tom Zeller of the New York Times a few days after the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, in response to headlines of unprecedented disaster and doom for the Gulf of Mexico I commented “…the sky is not falling…”; a statement that not everyone agreed with. Apparently some people believed the sky was/is falling and at the time headlines certainly did not dissuade that impression. I believe that there is substantial ground on which to consider and measure spill impact and the future of the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal communities. The full impact of this blowout has not been measured, only speculated, and the history of spills suggests that the Gulf of Mexico will survive as a productive ecosystem and economic engine.

The blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drill rig in lease block Mississippi Canyon 252 on April 20 was tragic - 11 men lost their lives leaving a hole in our hearts and history that can never be filled. Environmentally, it is still a disaster of undetermined magnitude. Certainly, the natural environment has been degraded and lives have been negatively impacted, but to what extent have not been measured yet. It is an ongoing disaster. Recovery within our coastal communities and impact assessment will not be complete until the well is plugged and the scientific and economic data is fully tabulated and analyzed.

Environmental Impact:

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico is not new – it has been entering the Gulf of Mexico for as long as the Gulf has existed!

  1. Natural seepage (1 -2 supertankers/year or ~1,090,910 barrels/yr)
  2. Marine shipping disasters (just since 1990 145,234 barrels and during WWII 56 ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico)
  3. Marine shipping operations (bilge cleaning)
  4. Oil/gas production (IXTOC I in 1979 3,181,818 barrels over a 10-month period)
  5. Chronic spills in recreational and commercial marinas (significant)
  6. Storm water runoff within the watershed of the Mississippi River and all other river systems feeding into the Gulf of Mexico and from coastal communities (perhaps largest source of all)
  7. Spills from hurricane impact (159,091 barrels during Katrina)
  8. Other (refinery spill 71,000 barrels)

Why is this important to know? Based on scientific measurement and history -hydrocarbons in the system have always been adequately dealt with by nature. It is not likely that the oil flowing into Gulf today will still be there a year from now. That being said, although oil and gas in the Gulf is not new, it is imperative that we reduce and eliminate human inputs where possible – anthropogenic inputs are not good!

Science does not have a clue as to the total capacity of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb pollutants that we dump into it. We do not know which straw “will break the camel’s back.” And keep in mind; these human inputs are not just hydrocarbons but a diverse soup of contaminants coming from seemly unlimited sources, both direct and non-point sources. Without question these human inputs can be stopped if we humans are willing to make the commitment to do so.

Economic Impact on the Communities of the Gulf of Mexico:

The Gulf of Mexico is the most economically productive body of water within the U.S. and Mexico territorial seas. The tourism and energy industries are the largest economic factors in the Gulf. Along with ports, shipping, and fisheries these industries combined have an economic impact in excess of $280 billion/year. And the “oh wow!” message here is that all of these industries are interconnected and inseparable.

How robust do you think the tourist industry of Florida would be without hydrocarbon energy and chemistry? Tourists do not walk to Florida, they don’t fish from row boats, and they don’t stay in hotels made of mud. In Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, since the first offshore production platform was installed a few hundred yards off the coast in 1947, citizens of these states have reaped countless billions of dollars in paychecks and business profits. The flow of taxes into the state coffers from this activity is significant.

The agriculture, tourism, forestry, chemical, and fishery industries of all Gulf States could not exist without the oil/gas industry. And conversely, if these non-oil/gas industries did not exist the demand for hydrocarbons would be vastly reduced and consequently our need for the oil and gas industry would concurrently be reduced.

Relative to the tourism and fisheries industries of the northern Gulf Coast the Deepwater Horizon spill is having a serious immediate localized impact. As a precautionary move, areas are being closed to fishery harvest until this event is over and subsequent laboratory test indicate that the seafood from those areas is safe. Seaside hotels are losing bookings as we speak. All in all, the normal flow of dollars through these industries and coastal communities is going to be distorted in the summer of 2010.

Note that I said “distorted” not stopped. I’ve never seen data and analysis of the ultimate financial impact on the people of Alaska caused by the Exxon Valdez spill. It would be interesting to see a scientific analysis of what the average and median incomes of the folks of Alaska were before the Exxon Valdez spill compared to data taken during the event and after the event.

After all the federal government dollars spent during and after the spill, the response jobs funded, vessel chartered, and all the personal injury lawsuits were settled to the advantage of the Alaskans what was the true financial impact? It was Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska that championed the “Drill Baby Drill” slogan and this was after the Exxon Valdez spill. Is it possible that after the smoke cleared and the spill headlines were replaced by headlines of another catastrophe - the true financial impact was not the disaster predicted and portrayed? Alaska wants the oil and gas industry and I bet the Gulf States do too.

Science and Technology Response:

Catastrophic events are kind of “gotcha events.” Our limits of knowledge and technology – the good – the bad – and the ugly are thrust into the spotlight. The Deepwater Horizon spill has underscored our relative ignorance of deep-water habitats and ecosystems. We know virtually nothing of the ecosystem dynamics 5,000 feet below the water’s surface where light never shines, temperatures are always below freezing, and pressures are crushing. Why is this? Because these remote realms are expensive to study, out-of-sight and out-of-mind, and the powers that control funding for scientific research are more interested in funding research in those areas where people live and can see the results. And, other than hydrocarbons, we have not developed any financial interests in these habitats. In the Gulf of Mexico all but one academic institution that I am aware of has sold or scrapped their deep water research vessels because there was not enough funding to support them.

This spill has also underscored the oil/gas industry’s technological deficiencies in dealing with such unintended events. The IXTOC I blowout in 1979 occurred at 900 feet below the sea’s surface and flowed for nine months, spilling nearly 3.2 million barrels of heavy oil into the southern Gulf of Mexico which eventually coated the barrier island beaches of Texas. At that time the IXTOC I was considered a deep-water well. And, although the technology to drill the well existed there was absolutely no technology developed, tested, and ready to employ should a blowout occur. Sound familiar? Before April 20, engineers in the oil and gas industry were convinced that such an event as the Deepwater Horizon blowout could not happen with a blowout preventer and other failsafe mechanisms in place. They were confident that they had everything under control. Unfortunately, they were wrong and we must learn from this. Booms, dispersants, and skimmers are band aids and as such inadequate. The developers of deep-water drilling technology must give equal attention to prevention and response technology as they give to the drilling and production technology. Wells are being drilled beyond depths of 10,000 feet! Response capabilities must match drilling and production capabilities – no exceptions!

Future of the Energy Industry in the Gulf of Mexico:

Offshore oil and gas production will continue until we, nationally and globally, can wean ourselves from not only the energy of hydrocarbons, but just as importantly the chemistry of hydrocarbons. With a push for alternative energy, we stand a much better chance on the energy front than we do on the chemistry front. Here is a challenge: where you are now sitting, try to identify one manmade object that does not have hydrocarbon energy and/or chemistry involved in its manufacture. Now identify those manmade objects with hydrocarbon energy and chemistry that you are willing to give up!

The oil/gas industry is here for the foreseeable future; and that is not necessarily bad. For the most part those hydrocarbon-based manmade elements in our lives have elevated and sustained our desired quality of life. I for one am not ready to move back into a cave, walk the raw ground barefoot, and beat my evening meal to death with a stick!

Absolutely we must use this invaluable resource wisely. As demonstrated by the Deepwater Horizon event, we’ve got serious work to do to ensure that we can extract this resource safely and sustainably. The same can be said for the consumption of hydrocarbons – technology must allow us to do so in a manner that does not destroy our home – Planet Earth.

Gulf of Mexico Foundation:

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation was incorporated in May 1990 – this is our 20th anniversary. We are heavily involved in habitat restoration projects, more than 70 in all five U.S. Gulf States and four Caribbean Territories. Our education programs stretch around the Gulf perimeter and into the watershed states. The Foundation is in the forefront of developing and implementing effective environmental collaborations with Mexico.

We have a program of retirees that migrate south across the Mississippi River watershed with the Whooping Cranes every winter; and we are now involved in an environmental education project in Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa! Why? This is where the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico originate as do the dust storms that affect the coral reefs of the Caribbean Sea – it is a small interconnected world. We sponsor teachers on underwater explorations to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and along the Intracoastal Waterway between Louisiana and Texas. Our programs reach tens of thousands across the U.S. and beyond.

Private industry is a critical partner as we strive to fulfill the Foundation’s mission. We have always felt that the Gulf of Mexico society is better served by the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, working with industry, to improve the environment and economy. The oil and gas industry has always been supportive by supplying financing, human energy and intellect. They have always joined us asking, “What can we do to help?” We are grateful and proud of all of our partnerships, whether they come from retail, food service, agriculture, ports, fisheries, individuals, or energy!

In the title I posed a “this or that” riddle: The Sky is Falling! Or Is It? The answer; no the sky is not falling today, but if we do not take proactive steps to protect both the environment and economy it may fall someday. The future is literally ours to paint.

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 17, 2021Director’s Report Six

Although there is debate on flow rates, one thing is certain – there is a man-made hole in the Gulf of Mexico seabed releasing oil into ocean waters above. Attempts to control it have been unsuccessful; and new strategies are being devised. The 1979 IXTOC I spill in the southern Gulf of Mexico also defied all efforts until a relief well was completed, nine months after the blowout.

Academic and agency scientists are now engaged. Just in the last couple of days scientists aboard the R/V Pelican have discovered extensive “plumes” of oil floating at different depths and moving in a direction (southwest), counter to the movement of oil on the surface (northeast). It appears that dispersants are reducing the exposure of bays and estuaries to the oil, but the oil is still in the system.

It is well known that the Gulf of Mexico has a remarkable ability to deal with hydrocarbons, breaking them down and redistributing the resulting molecular compounds throughout the system. Natural seeps have been pumping oil into the systems for eons. However, it is unknown how much non-natural inputs of hydrocarbons can be injected into the system before its ability to absorb the total volume is exceeded.

Hydrocarbons (e.g. oil, gas, and diesel) enter the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem through several avenues other than natural seepages. There is the acute event we are witnessing now. But, perhaps more threatening, chronic inputs of hydrocarbons occur via small spills at recreational and commercial marinas, storm water runoff throughout the entire Mississippi River watershed, and spills from nearshore storage facilities that happen during every hurricane making landfall in the Gulf of Mexico. To date, through poorly studied processes of dilution, molecular reduction, and assimilation, the Gulf of Mexico has handled all inputs and remained relatively healthy and productive. It is imperative that we understand this process more fully.

Hopefully, the lessons of this spill will be ingrained in the public conscience and acted upon. One lesson is that our knowledge of the deepwater ecosystem is extremely limited. Science has not been funded to explore these areas. All but one Gulf of Mexico university has rid itself of marine research vessels capable to conducting deepwater studies. There was simply not enough research funding to support these vessels. Today, this seems pretty short-sighted on the part of the powers that control such funding. Science is important and crucial, and it must be undertaken during non-catastrophic times in order to be ready for the catastrophes when they do occur.

On shore the volunteer response is inspiring. People have been contacting the Gulf of Mexico Foundation for information on where to volunteer. We’ve directed these folks to the volunteer organization network. We’ve also been receiving ideas from around the world on how to stop the flow. These ideas have also been forwarded to the proper authorities. The compassion for the wildlife and natural habitats and ingenuity of the technical thinkers is amazing! Seeing this, one cannot help but to have hope for the future.

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 8, 2021Director’s Report Day Five

History has shown that in a spill event there are several distinct arenas of activity:

  1. The field response intended to stop the spill and minimize its impact in the shortest amount of time.
  2. The investigation of cause. How did this happen? This is a question for the engineers and investigators to address. The findings in this arena could/should have profound effects on technology, policy, and accountability.
  3. The media event. In an age of instant global communication, the line between reporting news, creating news, and controlling public opinion can be blurred. A spill is news, but how objective is the news when those reporting are in a dynamic competition for viewers, ratings, and advertising dollars with scores of competing news agencies?
  4. The legal event. We live in a litigious society and personal injury suits have become big business for lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants. One would hope that by the time a suit gets into court there is scientific data to support the arguments being made. And, this includes not only biological/ecological data, but also social and economic data determined by scientific measurement.
  5. The political response. Political careers can be made and lost on such events; and, party polarization can drive political response. Political leaders are often forced to straddle numerous fences.
  6. Assessment of impact on a community’s businesses/industries and the individual citizens. Understandably, this is very emotional which makes it great material for the media event. All possible efforts should be made to minimize impact on communities and people.
  7. Assessment of impact on the environment. Certainly impact happens, but the extent of impact is speculation until the impact is measured and the hypothesis is tested under scientific guidelines. What is the level and significance of the impact? How long will it take the system to recover? What is the threat and ultimately what will be the actual impact on public health and economic well being?
  8. The planning period. How can information and experienced gained be used to ensure that such events never happen again?
  9. The waiting period. Can nature and the economy recover from the impact?

For some reason my comment, "the sky is not falling" reported in the New York Times two days after the event began has offended some in the science community; I’m not sure why. Accusations of industry bias have been hurled my way. So be it, but the only bias on my part has been a bias for sticking to facts and the truths those facts support. And, this is the bias I and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation will stick to.

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 7, 2021Director’s Report Day Four

HOMEWARD BOUND - Franklin and I turned our trusty rental west today toward Texas and home. The spill event continues both on the seabed and on the streets of coastal towns and cities. BP’s attempts to stop the flow with a containment box are not working and personal injury lawyers are frantically lining up clients for class action suits. Dozens of lawsuits have already been filed and no doubt many more are coming down the pipe. People are scared, confused, and angry. And, everyone seems ready to drive a stake into the heart of BP.

I am happy to report that leaders in the marine science community are engaged and trying to focus on the science of the spill. Never before have we faced a spill like this – it is at 5,000 feet below the surface! Scientists are engaging in discussions of the chemical behavior of hydrocarbons mixed with numerous other chemical compounds and dispersants at sub-freezing temperatures, total darkness, and 2,242 pounds of pressure per square inch. The worst place for the spill to be is in the bays and estuaries. To reduce the exposure of coastal habitats to the oil dispersants have been applied to reduce the amount of spilled oil coming to the surface, but what is this treatment doing to the seabed habitats and the creatures that live there? Most certainly deep-water habitats are linked to the shallow-water coastal habitats, but how? And, just how significant is all that is happening on the seabed?

To those of us living and working in the coastal zone of the impacted area this is a disaster. But, in the big picture of the Gulf of Mexico this is not yet a major event. Natural seepages and other spills in the Gulf of Mexico have far exceeded this spill. And, the Gulf of Mexico continues to function as a healthy and productive body of water.

Obviously, if we are going to continue to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for hydrocarbon energy and chemistry, we need to re-think how industry operates in extreme habitats. In laboratory setting spill scenarios need to be staged and response strategies established. Technology to implement these strategies must be advanced and on standby at all times. The oil and gas industry exists because of a global demand for this product, a demand that is growing every year. Oil is the currency of the global economy. Nations achieve greatness and fail because of having oil in abundance or having none. The coming national debate will be interesting.

Dr. Quenton Dokken in Louisiana. Photo: Franklin Viola
Dr. Quenton Dokken in Louisiana. Photo: Franklin Viola

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 6, 2021Director’s Report Day Three

Dauphin Island, AL - Franklin and I traveled back to Venice, Louisiana, just in time to get reports that the first oil had been confirmed on the shores of Chandeleur Island. It arrived as a dirty brownish-green layer of surface water; very unlike the thick mouse of the IXTOC I spill in 1979. Now the discussion can focus on impacts.

Following the natural dynamics of the marine environment, bacteria and algae absorb nutrients and toxins, herbivores and omnivores eat bacteria and algae, omnivores eat herbivores, and carnivores eat everyone else (i.e. little fish is eaten by bigger fish which is eaten by bigger fish which is eaten by humans). In this process, toxins are bioaccumulated in animal tissues and biomagnified as this tissue moves up the food chain. Hence, the concern about eating seafood from contaminated water.

We faced this same issue as flood waters from Hurricane Katrina were pumped from New Orleans back into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. And, yearly around the Gulf of Mexico significant areas of the oyster beds are closed to harvest because of contaminants entering the system via non-point source inputs.

Oil from a spill can also disrupt the population dynamics of marine organisms. Not only those that we are most familiar with such as shrimp and red snapper, but also those thousands of species of marine organisms which are seldom known by the non-marine scientist, but are still critical to the ecosystem dynamics of the marine environment. Benthic organisms living in the intertidal and swash zones on the beaches are particularly hard hit. Worms, mollusks, and small crustaceans are smothered and poisoned by oil on the beaches. Birds that feed on these animals must leave the area and find clean beaches on which to feed.

Birds such as pelicans that feed in open waters either must move to new feeding grounds or risk dying as the result of ingesting oil and/or coating their feathers making it impossible for them to fly. Air breathing marine animals such as turtles and dolphins must also migrate out of contaminated water or risk exposure as they come to the surface to breathe and feed on contaminated food sources. Unfortunately, once in a contaminated area they cannot always find their way out.

People must leave these beaches as well which has a serious impact on the tourist industry. Images of empty beaches contaminated with oil are circulated worldwide. And, this could be the longest-lasting impact.

What to do? Aggressive efforts will be made to restrict the oil from entering the most sensitive areas and to clean the beaches of oil. But still the most effective response will be by nature. Oil pollution enters the Gulf of Mexico from many sources: spills such as the IXTOC I, small spills at commercial and recreational boat docks, unspecified spills occurring during hurricanes, rain runoff of roads, misguided people dumping used motor oil into storm drains and offshore when no one is looking, and the largest source – natural seepage from the seabed which occurs continuously and in significant quantities. Oil in the water is not new or rare.

To date, the Gulf of Mexico has been remarkably resilient to these insults. For the most part the waters are clean and provide suitable habitat for the Gulf's many species of whales, turtles, birds and fish. Why is this so? Over eons of time the natural system has developed mechanisms to cope with the natural seepage. These mechanisms have been coping with the human inputs as well. The Gulf of Mexico covers a vast area and contains an unimaginable volume of water. Normal currents and storm currents keep the system mixed and pollutants diluted to levels that are not harmful. Natural cycles and food chains degrade these hydrocarbons back into their molecular components.

Today and into the future we can do nothing about the natural inputs of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico, but we can stop the human input. This will not be easy or cheap. Safer technologies must be developed, educational programs must be on the front page, and America as a whole must commit to making this happen. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation will be doing its part.

'Media Watch at Mobile Bay'- watching/waiting for
something to happen.
Photo: Franklin Viola

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 5, 2021Director’s Report Day Two

I am happy to report that photographer Franklin Viola and I are still on the road “looking” for oil. I am even happier to report that the oil is still offshore and coastal areas had not been impacted as of May 5th. We traveled as far east as Dauphin Island, Alabama, and met with Dr. George Crozier and Dr. John Dindo of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a premier marine science institute in the Gulf of Mexico. Having no oil on the beaches to deal with, we talked about the response of government, business and industry, private citizens, personal injury lawyers, and media to this spill. The response is truly impressive. It is aggressive, comprehensive, and at times frustrating and baffling.

For 20 years the Gulf of Mexico Foundation has operated quietly – offering award-winning education and habitat restoration programs – until this week. In an interview for the New York Times, and they are doing excellent work reporting this spill, I was quoted saying “… the sky is not falling …”. Apparently, some don’t agree and I and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation have become a target of those advocating closure of offshore oil and gas production.

My response:

As I was quoted in the NY Times piece, “the sky is not falling.” There is potential for major impact, but it has not been documented, only speculated. As a marine scientist I work closely with academic research labs and resource management agencies in every Gulf State and the marine scientist and resource managers that I work with have not documented impact. It will take time to do so. Obviously, there is potential for significant damage, but it has not happened yet.

In comparison, this spill is nowhere near the spill of the 1979 IXTOC I spill in the southern Gulf of Mexico in terms of volume spilled. The IXTOC spill flowed heavy crude into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a year. I was employed to conduct field investigations of the impact of that spill. Although devastating at the time, its impact was relatively short lived. At the same time the V.A. Fogg (a tanker) wrecked off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and there have been other spills since then. The spills of hydrocarbons and other toxic pollutants caused during hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike were significant. Yet, thanks to nature – not humans – the Gulf of Mexico has remained productive and relatively healthy. Its resiliency is amazing.

Now I and the GMF's Board of Directors will be the first to say that regardless of the resiliency of the Gulf of Mexico we must find ways to end these intermittent insults to the Gulf, and this includes non-point source impacts from the coastal shorelines and Mississippi River watershed areas. In an event such as this spill overblown rhetoric dominates the media. Ideally, response to events such as this would be based on facts and truth. Personal objectives would not be factored in the response strategy. That would be the ideal world. So, as I said, “the sky is not falling.” The Gulf of Mexico will recover.

And, in the meantime I and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation will work as closely with business and industry as we can to develop ways to prevent this type of event from happening again and to address the less visible but more degrading impact of non-point source pollution. The GMF is a leader in the efforts to achieve sustainable environments and economies. It is a complex and massive task, but through our education and habitat restoration efforts we a doing our part.

It is not an option to shut down offshore oil and gas in the foreseeable future. The largest source of income for the federal government is income tax. The second largest source of income for the federal government is production royalties paid by offshore oil/gas producers! Considering that the federal government is already short of money to meet the needs of the nation it is not logical to think that we can eliminate the second largest source of income without a plan to make up the difference.

Absolutely, we must move toward alternative energy. For national security we must also move away from dependence on foreign sources of energy. As we do this we must recognize that the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico not only supports the federal government, but also provides tens of thousands of jobs and business opportunities. In Texas and Louisiana, the oil and gas industry is the foundation of the coastal economy. The bays and near-shore waters of Mississippi and Alabama are dotted with gas production wells. In Florida, without oil and gas the tourist they depend on and the infrastructure to support that tourism industry could not/would not exist without the consumption of massive amounts of oil and gas energy and hydrocarbon chemistry.

I often challenge people to identify one thing in their immediate surrounding that does not depend upon oil and gas energy and hydrocarbon chemistry. I am still looking. So as we move toward the use of renewable energy it is not practical to think that we can snap our fingers and eliminate oil and gas production. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation is willing to work with any industry that supports its mission. Our oil and gas partners represented on the Board of Directors have generously contributed to supporting our education and habitat restoration programs – not only funding, but intellect and energy as well. Never once has a private sector donor to the Foundation tried to steer the Foundation in a self-serving direction. They have all walked in and said, “What can we do to help?”

These representatives of major offshore producers are not from outer space! They are our neighbors and family members. They desire the same quality of life you and I do. And, they are stepping up to help build a sustainable quality of life for today and tomorrow. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation is fortunate and happy to have such Board members. We encourage every industry that believes in our mission of supporting healthy and productive environments and robust economies to join with us.

Today, we are back in Louisiana!

Black Skimmers nesting on beach in Gulfport, Miss. Photo: Franklin Viola
Black Skimmers nesting on beach in Gulfport, Miss.
Photo: Franklin Viola

Deepwater Horizon Spill Commentary
by Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Executive Director, Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

May 4, 2021Director’s Report Day One Yesterday, along with Franklin Viola, a renowned nature photographer (see his photograph of black skimmers above), I embarked on a journey across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle to see for myself the “disaster” of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Being a veteran of the IXTOC I spill that occurred in 1979 in the Bay of Campeche of the southern Gulf and the V.A. Fogg tanker spill that occurred off Galveston, Texas, that same year I was prepared for the worst. On day one of our journey we discovered that there is no disaster; lots of “potential,” but no oil on the beaches yet.

Yes, oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from a well 5,000 feet beneath the ocean surface; and yes, BP and others are scrambling to plug this well and contain the oil. However, the oil is still offshore, booms are being deployed, skimmer boats are working, and strike teams are in place along the Gulf coast to take immediate action when/if oil comes ashore. And, perhaps the most important factor, the weather has been favorable to keeping the oil offshore while a fix is implemented.

The worst case scenario is for the oil to get into the bays and estuaries. These are nurseries that are critical to the life cycles of most of the fishery resources of the Gulf States, commercial and recreational. Offshore, the impact is not as devastating. The oil of this spill is known as light “sweet” crude. Coming up from 5,000 feet much of the volatiles and other contaminants dissolve into the water and at the surface it is further reduced by evaporation and continued mixing into the water. The dilution ratio significantly reduces the environmental threat. At the surface the residue forms a sheen that spreads out over large areas.

In contrast oil of the IXTOC I spill was a heavy oil that formed thick tar-like layers on the surface and broke up into pancake-like patches that washed up on beaches of the western Gulf. Large quantities of this oil sank to the seabed forming thick mats that were covered up with sand. The IXTOC I well flowed unabated into the Gulf of Mexico for more than 12 months! Despite all the human efforts to minimize the impacts of the IXTOC I spill, it was nature that cleaned up the mess. The Gulf of Mexico has proven to be a very resilient ecosystem.

In the last two days I’ve been interviewed by reporters and radio talk show hosts from Greece, London, Toronto and New York. I’ve tried to present the facts and truth as I know them. For some this has been well received, but for others with their own objectives (e.g. shut down offshore drilling) this effort to present an unbiased picture of reality has made the Gulf of Mexico Foundation a target (i.e. a puppet of oil and gas). I have and will continue to speak the truth based on facts. An oil spill is a very complex social and business event. The environment can be impacted, people’s lives can be changed forever, political careers can be started and ended, and lots of money can be lost and made. The dynamics are complex and fluid.

The mission of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation takes into account the importance of a healthy and productive environment and robust economy to sustain the quality of life we desire and wish to pass on to future generations. You cannot have one without the other. We work closely with the oil and gas industry and we will work closely with any other industry that supports the mission of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. We are all a part of the Gulf of Mexico community today and tomorrow; and we will successfully address the issues of the Gulf of Mexico only if we do so as a team.

-Dr. Quenton Dokken
 GMF Executive Director

Gulf of Mexico Foundation - PMB 51, 5403 Everhart - Corpus Christi, TX 78411
(800) 884-4175 toll free - (361) 882-3939 phone - (361) 882-1262 fax
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