The Gulf of Oil

Venice, LA – I’m down at the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico or what for now is the Gulf of Mexico. Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist and oil spill expert flew over the gulf Wednesday morning and said, “It’s not the Gulf of Mexico any more. It’s the gulf of oil.”

Rick’s been helping governments respond to oil spills for the past 30 years (an unusually prescient career choice). A resident of Cordova, AK he found a spill in his front yard in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

“Right after the Valdez spill, someone told me, ‘Lawyers still to be born will be litigating this spill.’ I laughed at him, but he was right. It’s been 21 years and the litigation between the federal government and Exxon is still not over.”

The fact that people who lost their livelihoods in the Exxon spill waited 20 years before they saw a nickel of compensation from Exxon is not happy news here, but Rick pulls no punches and gives straight answers. It’s as welcome – and as rare – as a cool breeze in Louisiana.

“The executives at BP must be reading the Exxon spill response playbook because they’re doing exactly what Exxon did,” he said. For those of you without access to the oily inner sancta, the playbook’s rules are these:

1 – Understate the amount of oil spilled.

2 – Understate the environmental damage caused by the oil.

3 – Overstate the effectiveness of your company’s response.

4 – Try to buy off the locals with tiny amounts of money (BP is offering $5,000 each to coastal residents in Mississippi) in exchange for waivers promising not to sue for damages.

5 – Slap gag orders on anyone doing business with the corporation. (Fishermen who want work from BP in the cleanup efforts have to agree in writing not to speak to the media. The gag orders are legally meaningless; it’s the intimidation factor that counts.)

Following the guidance of point three, BP has strung miles of bright orange boom everywhere there’s a tee vee camera. As if booms are some kind of magic wand. Booms are useless unless skimmers pick up the oil they collect and no one has seen any skimmers. Beyond that, the oil from the spill is bubbling up from a mile below the ocean. By the time it gets to the surface, it’s so thoroughly mixed with water it just slips under the booms.

Nonetheless, BP had a couple hundred shrimp boats on the gulf Wednesday, trolling booms back and forth. It’s not an oil spill response, it’s Response Theater. As Rick points out, in the best of circumstances (and we’re very far from that in the gulf) only ten percent of the oil is ever recovered. In the Exxon spill, after $2 billion, three summers with 1,000 boats and 13,000 workers, only five to seven percent of the oil was recovered.

One worry here is that the massive spill – which may spew oil for many weeks to come – will slip around the Florida peninsula and be carried up the east coast by the gulf stream. At the Exxon spill, which entailed a heavier grade of crude in the much more closed Prince William Sound, the oil was carried 800 miles down the Alaskan coast. There are several countervailing currents in the gulf, at all depths and of course, this oil is moving at every depth the gulf has. No one can predict where it will go.

“There’s never been a successful response to a marine oil spill. Ever.” Rick said. “We’re addicted to oil and like any addict, we are taking larger and larger risks to get our fix and the consequences are more and more disastrous.”

So what’s the solution? Break the addiction. We have to stop drilling in the ocean. The results are too catastrophic. Instead of reading from cue cards prepared for him by oil lobbyists, Barack Obama has to shift our government’s energy policy to privilege efficiency and clean renewables over fossil fuels. Not only will that prevent the next marine tragedy, but it’s our only chance of arresting global warming before we burn our species off the planet.

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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