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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Unacceptable Risk in the Gulf
distributed 4/30/10 - ©2010

There is a tragic irony in the timing of the recent, and continuing, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In January, 1969, an oil rig off Santa Barbara, California, suffered a blowout. In the eleven days that it took to cap the well and plug leaking fault lines, over 80,000 barrels (3,400,000 gallons) of crude oil spread along the Pacific coast. Widespread news reports about dead seals, dolphins and tens of thousands of shorebirds generated disgust and anger. As I wrote two weeks ago, that oil spill often is listed as one of the dramatic events that fueled the environmental concern and passion of the first Earth Day in 1970.

Ten days ago, during the week that marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, another disaster struck at an off-shore oil rig. The explosion, fire and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created a still-expanding environmental disaster.

The current spill is releasing 5,000 barrels of oil per day. After 10 days, the amount of oil spilled is approaching the total volume of the 1969 event -- but this time, there is still no effective plan or timeline for containing the spill. The complete failure of the drill rig, and of the single shut-off valve on the mile-deep sea floor, means that hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil will continue to spill every day. Maybe, in a few more weeks, an un-tested collection dome will be able to capture the gushing oil. Or maybe it will take many more months to drill additional wells into the oil formation, and divert the flow.

The oil slick already covers more than 2,200 square miles -- an area considerably larger than the state of Rhode Island. Marine animals at risk because of oil on the ocean surface include sperm whales, bluefin tuna (the subject of a recent Notes), sea turtles and manatees.

Last night, the oil slick started to make landfall along the Louisiana coast.

The coastline at the mouth of the Mississippi River is completely different from the rugged shoreline near Santa Barbara, California. Land rises gradually from the Gulf, with low barrier islands and sprawling wetlands where the boundary between ocean and dry land is vague. When oil spreads into those marshes and bayous, the ecological impact will be enormous and long-lasting. The Audubon Society says that "recovery efforts for marsh birds will be nearly impossible if oil accumulates in the marshes."

The Gulf coast is biologically diverse and productive, and very fragile. The area produces 50% of the US's wild shrimp, and has rich oyster beds. Among the 400 species at risk from the oil spill, the Audubon Society lists birds such as the brown pelican and snowy plover among the most vulnerable. They say that the reddish egret "has nowhere to go if feeding and nesting grounds are fouled with oil."

David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said, "It is of grave concern. ... I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling." (The NOAA website has a wealth of information on the incident, attempted responses, and impacts on fisheries.)

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How much risk is acceptable? How much damage should we tolerate as we feed our society's insatiable demand for oil? An inaccurate and overly-optimistic risk assessment about off-shore oil drilling has set the stage for this disaster. I hope that the emerging reality of catastrophic damage will change US policies about ocean drilling.

According to statistics from the US government's Minerals Management Service, there have been 172 spills in the Gulf of at least 2,100 gallons in the last ten years. In 2008, 125,034 gallons of oil and other toxic materials were accidentally discharged. (In a single day, the current spill is releasing twice the amount of all 2008 discharges.)

Those numerous, but relatively small spills have serious impacts, but they have not been catastrophic. A series of minor events can lead to the impression that deep-water drilling is generally safe, if messy. That flawed risk analysis may have informed the Obama administration's recent decision to expand off-shore drilling.

An editorial in today's Denver Post reaffirmed their belief that "new techniques" for offshore drilling "allow for it to be done in environmentally friendly ways". In an amazing understatement, they also conceded that "extracting fossil fuels can be a dirty, and potentially environmentally devastating, business."

When a major failure does occur, those "new techniques" -- and the Deepwater Horizon was pretty much state-of-the-art -- are revealed to be anything but "environmentally friendly." The scope of economic and ecological devastation in the Gulf is already severe, and it will become astronomical.

Perhaps the experts really did believe that new technologies made drilling safe. Perhaps they considered a huge spill to be so unlikely that the risk was not recognized. Perhaps. But those optimistic assessments have been proven false.

The oil now spewing from one uncontrolled well will cause widespread and long lasting damage. If migrating and breeding species are impacted severely, the ecology of the Gulf coast may never recover.

Occasional small spills scatted widely may be acceptable, but this calamity is not. This sort of devastation must not be allowed to happen again. If deep-water drilling continues, there must be redundant and reliable methods to stop the flow of a rogue well. The technology for collection domes must be tested, and available for rapid deployment.

Until those safeguards are in place, there is an unacceptably high potential for another catastrophe in future years. No matter how great our craving for oil, our need for a flourishing coastal ecology is much greater.

The California oil spill in 1969 led millions of citizens to action on the first Earth Day. The continuing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico must mobilize us toward action for changed energy policies that ensure ecological health.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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