Oil Transportation Through Texas Gulf in the Spotlight after Galveston Bay SpillGalveston Bay in Texas has averaged 285 oil spills per year since the late 90s, but the one that took place last month garnered extra media attention as the first one over 10,000 gallons in three years and the second-biggest spill off the coast of Texas since 1998. According to the Texas Tribune, there have been fewer spills in recent years. However, with 50 billion gallons being transported through the gulf annually, oil companies are still working with the state of Texas to mitigate risk as much as possible.

On March 22, a a 585-foot bulk carrier collided with an oil barge, causing some 150,000 gallons of fuel oil to spill into Galveston Bay, according to The Texas Tribune. The particular type of oil that spilled is a marine fuel oil called RMG 380, and is sticky and particularly heavy. Much of it will sink, and could persist in the environment for months or even years.

Environmental concerns

Galveston Bay is a center of Texas tourism and commercial activity; cruise ships leave from its ports, and commercial shipping vessels use it as well. According to the Tribune, Texas is the top exporting state in the nation, and the Houston Ship Channel in the area is a key port. It is also a place where tourists go to charter boats and enjoy the environment, which is ecologically very sensitive.

A spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department told the Tribune that birds covered in oil had already been found in the Galveston Bay area the week after the spill. As the accident took place near bird sanctuaries on the Bolivar Peninsula during spring migration season, the spill has caused concern about economic and environmental impacts for the Texas port.

Shortly after the incident, the Houston Ship Channel reopened on a limited basis.

“The cleanup operations progress is to the point that there is minimal danger of contamination to the commercial maritime traffic and allowing limited transit during daylight hours,” Captain Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard for Houston-Galveston, told The New York Times on March 25.

What now?

As of late March, an investigation was in progress concerning what caused the oil spill. Commander Gary Messmer, the Coast Guard’s chief of prevention for the Houston-Galveston sector, has expressed uncertainty about whether the ship or oil barge caused the collision. However, Kirby Inland Marine, the owner of the barge, has committed to footing the bill for all clean-up costs. Furthermore, Texas law states that companies transporting oil are a  responsible party in oil spills, so Kirby will also pay a fine as it has done has for numerous smaller accidents.

But is the company doing enough?

Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson seems optimistic about improved accountability between oil companies and the state. “We have gone from a culture 30 years ago where (if) you spilled something you didn’t tell anybody, where today if you spill something, regardless of the amount, you self-report,” he told the Houston Chronicle. Similarly, Greg Pollock, deputy commissioner of the GLO’s oil spill team, has called Kirby a responsible company despite the number of incidents it has reported in recent years. Judging by a letter to Kirby from the Baytown Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility in Galveston posted on Kirby’s safety blog, the company does try to make amends.

However, retired Coast Guard officer Jim Crawford  is not so forgiving, saying that the vessels were not operating safely.”You make a determination of whether that speed was safe and reasonable for those conditions. And obviously it wasn’t because these two vessels collided and oil got spilled,” he told The Weather Channel with regard to the investigation. Also, it is impossible to deny the environmental impact of the spill. Although clean-up efforts have been impressive, GLO spokesman Jim Suydam also expressed concern to the Texas Tribune regarding birds put at risk as they migrate northward or get caught in slicks when diving for fish.

Whatever the outcome, oil  transportation through the Gulf will remain  a contentious issue. Oil companies will have to continue to work together with the state of Texas to maintain the functions of the oil economy while addressing challenges and reducing risk to the environment.