Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Death of the Gulf Coast, and What Must Come

The End of All Gulf Life
Unlike my last piece on the oil volcano in the gulf, this article doesn't offer a small glimmer of hope. It's great that Bobby Jindal wants to build sand dunes to protect beaches, and that hair salons are donating used hair for more booms, and while that all may prevent the billionth gallon from leaking ashore, the damage has already been done. The Gulf Coast isn't dead yet, but by the time this leak is finally stopped, the damage will be irreversible. I would be highly surprised if even a fraction of the life that was in the Gulf of Mexico will be able to live in the toxic bile created by millions of gallons of oil and harmful chemical dispersants. This oil slick could very possibly kill every living thing that doesn't escape its perimeter. By the way, the slick is now estimated to be 45,728 square miles. To put that into scale, that's 728 square miles more than the Gadsden Purchase, which is basically the Southwesternmost corner of Arizona all the way to about halfway through New Mexico. The entire state of Mississippi is 48,430 square miles.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has Louisiana's marshes, the prime breeding ground and hatchery for the country's fishing industry. We're confronted now with pictures of oil-covered birds in the news media. A toxic mixture of dispersants and oil could now be even more threatening to the already fragile ecosystems of the Gulf Coast. In fact, even if just three of the Gulf Coast's 1400-1600 sperm whales are killed by oil, that could endanger the Gulf's entire sperm whale species. That's an entire species, at risk of being wiped out because of an oil rig exploding 30 miles from the shore, and with no clear end to the leak in sight.

A lot has developed from the spill since I last wrote about it; the 5,000 barrel a day estimate is likely merely a tenth of what is actually being belched into the ocean each day. And that's a generous estimate. This spill could be gushing an Exxon Valdez-sized figure each week. BP and the government had been saying 5,000 barrels per day (42 gallons of oil in each barrel) and the media had been repeating that figure ad nauseam until a video emerged showing a natural gas and oil gusher. Through particle analysis, comparing scale of distance between the camera and the strength of the gusher, to be much, much more than the 5,000 barrel figure. It could actually be between 50,000 and 100,000 barrels. That's up to 4.2 MILLION gallons of oil leaked every day. At the time of this writing, May 25, oil has been gushing from the Deepwater Horizon well for 35 days. Which means so far, the oil volcano a mile undersea could have regurgitated up to 147,000,000 gallons into the Gulf Coast ecosystem. That's about 12 Exxon Valdez-sized spills. And counting.

And there is MUCH more natural gas leaking than there is oil, and you can see the natural gas via the video of the spill released by BP after pressure from the Coast Guard and the Obama administration. Natural gas sucks oxygen out of the ocean, which is a problem for all of us because the ocean and trees produce the world's oxygen. Along with sea life dying by the truckload, the ocean's natural functions are also in danger due to the Deepwater Horizon gusher. (If you've notice, I refuse to call it a "leak." This is far worse than a "leak" or a "spill." Can we phase those words out now when referring to this disaster?)

This oil volcano will affect marine species in the gulf for literally the rest of our lives. It may very likely wipe out all marine life in a 50,000 mile radius. And you can imagine the residual effects this will have on people who make their living through fishing, renting out charter boats, or through tourism. The damage is already done. And it is literally incomprehensible.

What We Can Do, Post-Oilpocalypse
A few months ago, in a 5-4 decision in the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission ruling, the Supreme Court decided that because corporations are legally people, they can donate as much money as they want to a political campaign. My question is this- if corporations are people, then can we give them the equivalent of a death sentence if they commit acts that warrant such punishment?

Now, first of all, I sincerely hope that the "topkill" method of shooting mud and concrete into the pipe will work, and cap the flow of oil still gushing into the ocean. BP says there's only a 60-70 percent chance that it will work, because it's never been tried at a mile below sea level before, where up to 15,000 psi of pressure will have to be quelled. If this doesn't work, BP will likely follow through with their plan to drill an alternate well from another rig and siphon the oil that way, which means the oil gusher will continue for possibly several more months before it's finally stopped.

But frankly, the president has surprised me in how he let BP control the oil cleanup efforts, given that they frequently overlooked several red flags that showed the well they were drilling wasn't safe. And the fact that they grossly misunderestimated the severity of their mistake at 1,000 barrels a day being leaked daily. Of course, Mineral Management Services (MMS), the federal agency that was supposed to inspect the Deepwater Horizon rig at least once a month failed miserably at their job, as well, and allowed BP to get away with a vast array of safety violations.

But what's most surprising is that the strongest action that the federal government CAN take, legally, under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, has yet to be taken. That is, completely kick BP off the site and take over cleanup efforts. By allowing BP to clean up the site, and by failing to not deploy the national guard, or to divert extra military and civil resources to booming, barricading, and doing all they can to protect the marshes and the shores, damage has been caused that might not have had to happen. EPA Director Lisa Jackson can also push to debar BP from any further federal contracts, which would cost them about $12 billion per year.

Bush's historical legacy will likely be dominated by both his decision to invade Iraq in spite of international outrage, and by his administration's gross mishandling of Hurricane Katrina relief. Obama's legacy, while he's already accomplished far more in his first 16 months than any president in recent memory, has his legacy in jeopardy because of his lackadaisical, play-it-safe attitude towards BP and this oil spill. Even when I talk to die-hard Southern Republicans, they all talk about how they wish the government would do more about BP and the oil slick. The American people, conservatives included, all want the president to take a liberal, forthright, tough stance on the oil giants who all share responsibility for this catastrophe. Politically, there is everything to gain and everything to lose for this president when it comes to this crisis. I don't know what Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are telling the president to do, but I have a feeling he needs to stop listening to them and act like the progressive he was when he was campaigning, instead of being a play-it-safe centrist to BP and Big Oil.

Speaking of shared responsibility, I want to close with this.

Point the Finger at the Mirror
BP is guilty. Transocean is guilty. Halliburton is guilty. But this is not their fault, at least not directly. (Here's the part where a lot of you will stop agreeing with what I say and type something angry in the comment box.)

This incomprehensible disaster which will literally ruin the Gulf Coast's life for decades to come, is all our fault.

Maybe not you and I individually, but our lifestyle and extravangant petroleum-based culture, and our collective outrage whenever gas prices go up a dime, is what caused this mess. If you drive a car, fly in an airplane, or drink from plastic bottles, this is your fault.

If you live in America, this is your fault, because while we are 5% of the world's population, we use 24% of the world's energy.

If you live in a rural area, this is your fault, as city dwellers use less energy per capita than those who live in the hinterlands but still depend on city-provided utilities and electricity and drive cars.

And if you have children, this is also your fault, because your kids are also born and bred into a culture that encourages excessive consumption of resources, and will grow up consuming like we do unless our generation collectively decides to drastically change our lifestyle.

We can point fingers at BP and the government all we want, but there's still sludge dripping from our outstretched fingers. As long as our carbon footprint is what it is, then companies like BP, Exxon, Texaco, Citgo, Chevron, Shell and others will continue to drill deeper and deeper out into the ocean in order to satisfy consumer demand. As long as we demand cheap gas to fuel our excessive lifestyles, these companies will continue to engage in environmentally unconscionable acts so their stock prices will stay up. So we can keep living unsustainably.

To put this all in perspective, let me offer three key points-

-Exxon Valdez spilled 11,000,000 gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound.
-So far, the Deepwater Horizon gusher is spewing up to 2,000,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day.

And here's the kicker-

-The United States consumes 350,000,000 gallons of oil per day.

So, as bad as the BP oil gusher is, it's still only about half a percent of our DAILY consumption.

Do you see a problem here yet?

This is our fault. And if something good is to come from the death of the Gulf of Mexico, it must be comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. We must fight for it like the progressives fought for health care and financial reform. And unlike those two pieces of legislation, it cannot be seen as a child's vitamin (hard to swallow without being immensely watered down) but as vital to our survival and progression as a culture, as a society and as a species. We must become stewards of our planet.

This could mean sharply increasing the gas tax and using that money to put bike lanes on all highways. It could mean a tax on carbon emissions, forcing us to depend on energy sources that don't emit CO2. It could mean electing leaders who promise to uphold the environment for our future generations, instead of look out for the profits of Big Oil. It should definitely mean NOT electing candidates who say it's "un-American" for the government to criticize an oil company over their mistakes. Candidates and political parties who support unregulated, privatized, "free market" ideologies that showcase such an astounding disconnect with reality shouldn't be getting votes from any seriously concerned citizens. Period-point-blank.

Whatever the solution is, we must actively work towards it and not become lazy, cynical, apathetic, depressed, or discouraged. The 24-hour reactionary news cycle will, of course, put this story on the backburner after awhile when some new crisis arises, when an innocent is affected by tragedy, when some celebrity has a lusty affair. We'll be tempted to mindlessly drool in front of our TV screens, shrug our shoulders, say "well howabout that" and go on about working and shopping and playing.

Not taking action means that this environmental genocide will have meant nothing. And that history will likely repeat itself down the road. So vote. Keep the DC offices of your congressmen and senators in your cellphone, and call them every day and tell them to fight for clean energy legislation. Make phone calls for concerned candidates. Knock on doors. Sign petitions. Spread awareness.

We must not grow complacent.

We must fight.

We must change.

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