Gulf Oil Spill Update: Just the Facts

A Brown Pelican prepares to enter the water at the Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge near St. Petersburg May 23, 2010. The bird was rescued and cleaned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after being found oiled near Louisiana's coast. (Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen)

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is in its third month with no end in sight. Here's where things stand now in the Gulf of Mexico.

How much oil is still gushing?

No one knows exactly how much oil is escaping BP's oil collection system (series of pipes drawing oil from leak to surface ships) and entering Gulf waters. Government estimates peg the leak at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, which translates to between 1.5 million and 2.5 million gallons.

Of that, BP is now collecting upward of 20,000 barrels per day. On June 29, the company recovered 25,220 barrels, bringing the total collected since the beginning of the spill to 508,700 barrels.

Where is the oil?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s nearshore trajectory predictions for the spill show it hovering off the Gulf Coast as far west as the Rockefeller State Wildlife Preserve and Game Refuge in the western part of Louisiana. The oil slick stretches as far east as Port St. Joe in northwestern Florida.

NOAA is no longer forecasting the movement of oil out at sea, but the slick is not currently expected to enter the Loop Current, which could draw it around the Florida Peninsula and into the greater Atlantic. However, giant plumes of oil and gas are still present thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf.

The plumes are made of a mixture of oil, gas and seawater. They've been spotted radiating out from the blown well in all directions, University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye said at a June 22 media briefing. The southwest plume has been traced over 20 miles from the well, while another plume extends more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the Northeast. The plumes are rich in methane gas, which is an energy source for some undersea microbes. These microbes seem to be noshing on the methane and multiplying, depleting the oxygen in the water column. In the long run, Joye said, that oxygen deprivation could affect the Gulf ecosystem by harming populations of plankton, the base of the oceanic food chain.

Where has the oil made landfall?

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida have all experienced oiled shorelines. In late May, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal told reporters that 65 miles of his state's coastline were contaminated. On June 28, oil began to wash ashore near Biloxi, Miss., driving tourists from popular beaches. Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Public Health has issued a swimming advisory for beaches in the eastern part of the state where oil has been spotted. Beach advisories are also in place near Pensacola, Fla., where a substantial amount of oil in the form of tar balls reportedly washed ashore the first week of June.

How many animals have been affected by the spill?

Gulf wildlife is still facing fallout from the oil spill. According to NOAA, 583 sea turtles were stranded in the oil spill area between April 30 and June 28. Of those, 432 were found dead and four died after being rescued. A total of 136 turtles are currently in rehabilitation centers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is coordinating an effort to remove up to 70,000 turtle eggs from at-risk beaches. [Animals affected by oil spill]

In the same April-to-June time period, 55 dolphins were found stranded in the oil spill area. Only two survived. While cause of death has not been determined, dolphin strandings are up this year, according to NOAA.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA numbers, 1,185 visibly oiled birds had been pulled from Gulf waters and beaches as of June 29. More than 300 of those were found dead, as were another 829 without external evidence of oil.

What effect is Hurricane Alex having?

Hurricane Alex's path took it far from the blown-out wellhead, but the storm temporarily shut down oil-skimming efforts in the Gulf.

The storm's churning also pushed more oil toward shore, staining beaches in Alabama and Louisiana. But there is some good news, Coast Guard Commander Joe Higgens told the Associated Press on Wednesday: The rough seas have helped break apart at least one 6-by-30 mile patch of surface oil. The dispersant effect of the waves could help some slicks evaporate before they hit the shore.

Even so, the Gulf is bracing for a potentially intense hurricane season ahead.

What is the status of the relief well? Will it end the spill?

BP continues to drill two relief wells in an attempt to intercept the spill far below the ocean floor. According to a June 28 statement from the company, the first relief well is now 16,546 feet (5,043 meters) deep, close to its 18,000 foot (5,486 meter) target. The second relief well has reached a depth of 12,038 feet (3,669 meters).

The wells aren't slated to intercept the blown-out well until at least August, at which point they'll begin to pump heavy fluids into the wellbore to kill the oil and gas flow.

The relief wells are the best hope for stopping the spill. If they fail, engineers might try rerouting the collected oil through undersea pipelines to existing production rigs in the Gulf, government officials announced last week. The pipelines would replace the current collection ships, which must operate right above the well and are susceptible to hurricanes.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.