The US depends upon a constant oil supply in order to remain an economically competitive nation, this much is certain. It remains questionable whether the push for offshore drilling will grant the security of national energy independence. But in the midst of the largest man-made disaster of our time, which is visible from space, the dark side of oil extraction drifts into public view. I am talking about, of course, the oil spill that began in the Gulf of Mexico on April 16th, 2010. Eleven workers of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon were killed, and oil gushes from its broken pipes 5,000ft below the ocean’s surface. British Petroleum (BP), having ownership of the sunken Deepwater Horizon, has been provided sole responsibility of stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess.
Nearly two months after the initial explosion and with the leak still not stopped, this disaster continues to be a large environmental and economic concern for Louisiana and its surrounding areas. Despite the best efforts of the coast guard, volunteers, and BP engineers, severe damage is being done:
Over 6 million gallons have landed on the Louisiana coast.
Louisiana fishing and beaches have been closed down.
Estimated 4 million gallons a day.
20 times worse than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Giant underwater plumes of oil and chemical dispersants.
Clean-up cost is $450,000,000 and increasing at $10,000,000 a day.
Warm water loop current will carry oil flow to Florida.
A Matter of National Security, or Not?
“The global demand for oil and its ease of transportation have synchronized oil prices everywhere (Hunnicutt, 2008).” If an American company can sell its petroleum product for $3 per gallon in any other part of the world, there is no incentive to sell for anything less in America. So while the business of energy remains private, no amount of domestic drilling can save us from the law of supply and demand. The multinational corporate mindset is to follow the path of highest profitability. The Deepwater Horizon for example, had been flying the flag of a small group of islands off the coast of Australia named the Marshall Islands (Fleet, 2010). The oil rig Deepwater Horizon had no official ties to the Marshall Islands, but corporations are free to claim a nationality and choose which country’s regulations their offshore drilling machinery must abide by.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has had more influence on the global petroleum market than any single nation (Hunnicutt, 2008). OPEC is a consortium of twelve oil producing countries: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. In 1973 OPEC attempted an embargo against the US that lasted less than two months. “While its members were giving up oil revenues, its oil was still reaching the United States because of diverted shipments from Europe (Hunnicutt, 2008).” Today America spends more money on crude oil imports from Canada and Mexico than we purchase from the whole of the Persian Gulf (Department of Energy [DOE], 2008).
One can also make the argument that corporations drilling on domestic soil may not necessarily be American, and inversely American oil producers often operate outside of the country. Prior to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP had been selling their image in America as “Beyond Petroleum,” presumably to blend in as an American company and hide an already tarnished reputation.
“British Petroleum was linked to bribery in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in 2001, and 2002, and the Financial Times commented that ‘while the days of government ownership have long passed, BP’s ties with the British government are still so close that rivals call it [Blair Petroleum]’ (Phillips, 2006).”
With support from the US military, American petroleum multinationals have gained access to some of the world’s largest oil deposits. The Iraq Oil Ministry was the first major building to be occupied by American soldiers in Iraq (Phillips, 2006). This ministry was home to thousands of seismic portraits of oil fields, which provided no strategic military value. If there had been any question to the reason why America was invading Iraq, this action spoke loudly.
For a great extent of my 26 years of life, oilmen have dominated the American presidency. The last decade of which, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have commonly referred to themselves specifically as “Texas oilmen.” George W. used his presidency, in-part, to tie the hands of the American regulatory system. “President Bush has installed more than 100 top officials who were once lobbyists, attorneys or spokespeople for the industries they oversee (Mulkern, 2004).” Minerals Management Service (MMS), in charge of overseeing the petroleum industry, is certainly no exception. A “fox was put into the hen house” at MMS when former BP executive Sylvia Baca was appointed head of division of Minerals Management Service (Madrak, 2010).
Minerals Management Service boasts the second highest income for the American government departments, receiving $10 billion in revenue for 2009. Taxes are undoubtedly the biggest source of income. During a presidential news conference on the 27th of MAY, 2010, President Obama described the Minerals Management Service as “plagued with corruption for years and has given the oil industry leverage to regulate themselves.” As evidence, the president offers that under current law the Interior Department only has 30 days to review an exploration plan submitted by an oil company, which does not give sufficient time to do the review defaulting in an automatic passing (MSNBC, JUN2010).
A somewhat less direct way that the oil industry influences political decisions is through lobbying. British Petroleum reportedly spent $1.5 million in Washington lobbying in 2009 alone (OpenSecrets.org, 2010). This amount is relatively nothing compared to the $1.5 billion in fines accumulated in America before the spill (Federal, 2010). This points to an interesting question: should foreign business be given such access to influencing American political policy?
Effects of Petroleum (Hydrocarbons) on Life
Petroleum weathers from initial spill-site to shore, going from fluid rainbow sheen to sticky and tar-like. Near the spill-site, where the oil is still thin, hydrocarbons are volatile, reactive, toxic, and highly flammable (Rose, 2009). The stickier weathered form of oil contains cancer-causing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). Plants and small animals along the shore are smothered to death, turtles perish from food contamination, and birds suffer hypothermia as the oil strips their feathers of their natural weatherproofing.
It is hard to say what effect the Exxon/Valdez oil spill had on marine life, as the area was not well documented before the spill. Killer whales, on the other hand, had been well tracked in Alaska. A group of 22, known as the Prince Albert Transients, have their own dialect, eat mammals instead of fish, and generally do not intermingle with other killer whale populations (killer, 2009). Nine whales disappeared in the first winter after the spill, including two females and two children. This group is expected to die out, as they have no known remaining females of reproductive age. This does not bode well for our cetacean friends in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cetaceans of the Gulf of Mexico
Balaenidae and Balaenopteridae
Northern right whale
Physeteridae and Kogiidae
Pygmy sperm whale
Dwarf sperm whale
Cuvier’s beaked whale
Blainville’s beaked whale
Sowerby’s beaked whale
Gervais’ beaked whale
Pygmy killer whale
False killer whale
Short-finned pilot whale
Atlantic spotted dolphin
Pantropical spotted dolphin
We are already seeing a health decline in volunteers in the Gulf. A few have been hospitalized with claims of headaches, nausea, dizziness, coughing, sore throats, and other flu-like symptoms. These symptoms are signs of chemical poisoning, requiring doctors that specialize in occupational and environmental hazards. Only after volunteers started being hospitalized did BP acknowledge demands for protective equipment provisions of any kind, claiming that nobody yet knows the health risks. Though a study done by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 found that locals near the Hebei Spirit oil tanker spill suffered from “headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, tingling of limbs, sore throat, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath, itchy skin, rash and sore eyes (Weise, 2010).” In fact, 6,722 workers of the 1989 Valdez oil spill reported suffering from upper-respiratory illness.
An impressively well hidden oil spill that is at least 1.5 times bigger than the Valdez oil spill is centered under a residential area in Brooklyn, New York (Koughan, 2007). Teresa Toro, who lives just two blocks away from Newton Creek, says “When the wind is just right, I can smell it blowing off the creek. Sometimes we can’t open our windows.” Vapor tests performed in the area in 2005 relayed dangerous levels of Methane (natural gas) and Benzene. “It’s up to 35 or 36 people that I know that have had cancer just on this block,” says Tom Stagg, another block resident. Local residents speculate the source of the leak to be a large explosion that happened in the city’s sewer system in 1950. The explosion is rumored to have sent manhole covers (avg. 100lbs) “raining down on the populace (Koughan, 2007).” Chemical analysis indicated Exxon Mobil to be the producer of the oil in question, though they continue to deny any involvement. No efforts are currently being made to clean up the spill; it is at least 55 acres across and presumably growing larger each year.
We are nowhere near seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, yet the response to this spill has already been the largest response to any environmental disaster in US history. In an effort to add some relief to the environmental impact, thousands have rallied around the gulf. BP immediately hired local residents to clean the spill in exchange for contracts waiving the option to later sue the company for loss of livelihood. The American government has also stepped in to do its part. To date, 20,000 state, federal, and private personnel have been involved in this disaster (Whitehouse, 2010). In addition, 17,500 National Guard members have been called in to participate.
Wildlife experts’ main focus has been on saving the local avian population. The Louisiana state bird, the Brown Pelican, is particularly at risk because it just recently made a comeback from the brink of extinction. Birds are unable to distinguish where the oil is from where it is not, so many of them end up drenched from beak to tail. The unlucky birds can then be collected and cleaned once they are too burdened to fly away. Currently, rescued birds are being released in Florida, but it is yet to be determined if they will fly back to the Gulf promptly after release (MSNBC, JUN2010).
For lack of a better expression, abstinence is the surest form of prevention. Although petroleum is a necessary evil today, this disaster may go a long way in curving the American appetite for it. “Hydropower supplied 40% of US electricity in 1940, but now it supplies only 8% (Hafemeister, 2007).” Renewable energy comes with a somewhat higher initial cost, but is sustainable and “environmentally benign.” As far as extracting power from the sea, there are many alternatives to drilling. Hydropower is so diverse; there are many differing technologies to match any given situation. Kinetic, Pumped Hydro, and Helio Hydroelectricity are all examples of effective hydroelectric generation. Tidal and wave power also carry a promising amount of potential energy. Offshore wind farms have also been put on the table as a better use of natural resources. The same forces that the country is fighting a losing war against to keep this spill under control could just as well be working with us as environmentally friendly energy sources.
Even with as much attention and effort as the country is putting into the oil spill, things will continue to worsen unless the leak is stopped. It is certain that we will continue to see the effects of the damage for several years, even after the hole is plugged. Petroleum is a dangerous chemical and should not be handled without full protective equipment, so it is far from acceptable to have North American wildlife literally swimming in the stuff. If anything good can possibly come from this disaster, it would be the lesson that we draw from it. Morally incompetent corporations do not act appropriately when given free access to the nation’s resources, and should be denied the “keys.”
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