The idea of Earth “on fire” is used as a metaphor for the climate crisis, but earlier this month, the ocean was literally ablaze.
On July 2, in the Gulf of Mexico, a gas leak from an underwater pipeline caused a firey ring to churn on the ocean’s surface. It looked like the Eye of Sauron.
On Monday, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced the leak was contained, and Pemex claims there was “no oil spill and the immediate action taken to control the surface fire avoided environmental damage."
Now the company is investigating the cause of the pipeline leak. During this hunt for answers, the image remains: ships dumping water and nitrogen on an inferno for five hours. An ocean on fire.
But ultimately, it should not be viewed as a freak accident, but as an inevitability: relying on underwater fossil fuel pipelines inherently means engaging in risk. The losing side of that risk means jeopardizing ocean life, and all that relies on it.
Why are there fossil fuel pipelines under the ocean?
Natural gas and crude oil can be found in deposits under the sea bed, the result of ancient animals, plants, and microorganisms decomposing.
Because the fossil fuel deposits can be found offshore and deep under the ocean floor, there are offshore drilling rigs. Pipelines funnel fossil fuels from drilling platforms to onshore facilities on land, where crude material is refined and shipped.
Gas pipelines can also transport natural gas to consumers: For example, there is currently a dispute over the construction of a natural gas underwater pipeline that would allow gas in Russia to flow to Germany. In 2020, Israel and Greece also agreed to build an underwater gas pipeline.
The effect on the environment
Since offshore oil drilling began, its potential negative effect on ocean ecosystems has concerned scientists. The industrial exploitation of oil and gas resources in oceans began in 1897, when the first oil wells off the pier of Summerland, California produced crude oil. In the 21st century, drilling has moved further into the ocean, threatening different kinds of deep-sea wildlife.
What’s at risk is obvious:
- A 2019 article published in Frontiers describes how offshore oil drilling “discharges drill cuttings and drilling mud” that then get released into the ocean, “smothering the natural sediments” of the ocean, affecting marine habitats and, in turn, ocean biodiversity.
- A 2009 report by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) states: “Marine mammals, sea birds, fish, shellfish, and other sea life are extremely vulnerable to oil pollution and the long-term toxic effects can impair reproductive success for generations.”
- Another NRDC report states that the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed more than 1,000 sea turtles and 1 million offshore birds, in addition to contaminating 12 percent of bluefin tuna larvae.
- A 2007 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites both “oil and gas exploration and production” and the development of coastal “pipelines and cables” as primary threats to the survival of coral reefs, including in the Gulf of Mexico. As of April 2019, there were 1,862 offshore oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Many environmentalists criticized the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore oil drilling, citing threats to coastal and ocean wildlife and the role of fossil fuels in worsening the climate crisis. President Joe Biden signed an executive order pausing offshore oil drilling during his first month in office.
Recent research suggests using careful marine spatial planning and designating protected marine areas to preserve ocean wildlife from increased threats due to offshore drilling and deep-sea mining.
Is deep-sea mining the next crisis?
The impact of the fossil fuel industry on underwater ecosystems has been fairly well studied, but scientists are also raising the alarm on another emerging resource extraction method that could harm ocean ecosystems: deep-sea mining of precious metals.
In June of this year, a group of 300 scientists called for a pause on the deep-sea mining of minerals until further scientific research can be conducted on the effect on ocean wildlife.
Factors like pollution and trawling nets from deep-sea mining operations could result “in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning,” warned deep-sea biologist Diva Amon on Twitter.
Many of these metals available on the ocean floor for mining, such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese, are in high demand by the electric vehicle industry. Earlier this summer, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert investigated deep-sea mining, describing how nodules on the ocean floor contain these precious metals.
If we remove these nodules, it could potentially take millions of years for them to recover, disrupting the long-term ecosystem of deep-sea creatures like deep-sea pale jellyfishes, which lay their eggs on these nodules.
The ocean might not literally be on fire, but the potential consequences of deep-sea mining are just as disruptive to underwater life in other ways.
The Inverse analysis — Could the “eye of fire” happen again?
Yes. Oil and gas leaks have occurred numerous times in the past 50 years, often related to oil tankers catching on fire and releasing crude oil into the ocean. Perhaps the most famous oil spill also happened in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater crisis in 2010, which occurred after an explosion on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil drill. The event released a staggering 134 million gallons of oil into the ocean.
This isn’t even Pemex’s first rodeo: In December, a pipeline connecting offshore platforms to a Pemex-operated refinery exploded, causing fire to sit on the surface of the ocean.