Quest for Oil Leaves Trail of Damage Across the Globe
Like many of her neighbors, Celina Harpe is angry about the oil
pollution at her doorstep. No longer can she eat the silvery fish that
dart along the shore near her home. Even the wind that hurries over the
water reeks of oil waste.
"I get so mad," she said. "I feel very sad."
70, isn't a casualty of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She lives
in a remote corner of Alberta, Canada, where another oil field that's
vital to the United States is damaging one of the world's most
important ecosystems: Canada's northern forest.
the globe, people such as Harpe in oil-producing regions are watching
the catastrophe in the Gulf with a mixture of horror, hope and
resignation. To some, the black tide is a global event that finally may
awaken the world to the real cost of oil.
"This is a call
to attention for all humanity," said Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer in Ecuador
who's suing Chevron over oil pollution in the Amazon on behalf of
"Oil has a price," he added, "but water, life and a clean environment are worth much more."
Others say previous oil disasters haven't changed things much, and this one won't, either.
addicted to oil, so the beat will go on," said Richard Thomas, an
environmentalist in Newfoundland, Canada, where drilling rigs pepper
the coast. "Oil companies will make absolutely sure we don't check
ourselves into hydrocarbon rehab anytime soon."
no denying that the rust-red plumes of oil and tar balls in the Gulf of
Mexico are a potential ecological calamity for American Southern
shores. More than half the petroleum consumed in this country, however,
is imported from other countries, where damage from exploration and
drilling is more common but goes largely unnoticed.
one's tallied the damage worldwide, but it includes at least 200 square
miles of ruined wildlife habitat in Alberta, more than 18 billion
gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into the rainforests of Ecuador and
a parade of purple-black oil slicks that skim across Africa's Niger
Delta, where more than 2,000 polluted sites are estimated to need
"The Gulf spill can be seen as a picture of
what happens in the oil fields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa,"
Nnimmo Bassey, a human rights activist and the head of Environmental
Rights Action, the Nigeria chapter of Friends of the Earth, said in an
"We see frantic efforts being made to stop the
spill in the USA," Bassey added. "In Nigeria, oil companies largely
ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people's livelihood and
Despite calls for more domestic drilling
and new sources of energy, America's reliance on foreign oil has
climbed steadily over the years, from 44.5 percent of consumption in
1995 to 57 percent in 2008.
"Spills, leaks and deliberate
discharges are happening in oil fields all over the world, and very few
people seem to care," said Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and
policy at the City University of New York and the author of "Amazon
Crude," a book about oil development in Ecuador.
is accepting responsibility," Kimerling said. "Our fingerprint is on
those disasters because we are such a major consumer of oil."
United States burns through 19.5 million barrels of oil a day,
one-quarter of the world's consumption, more than China, Japan, India
and Russia combined. That's 2.7 gallons a day for every man, woman and
child, one of highest rates in the world.
hope for paring the nation's dependence on foreign oil lies in the Gulf
of Mexico and along the Alaska and California coasts, but that treasure
remains largely untapped. Offshore production has dropped in recent
years, from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2003 to 1.8 million in 2008.
Gulf spill is likely to shrink output even more and increase foreign
imports. "We must find a way to do this more safely," Sen. Mary
Landrieu, D-La., said at a Senate hearing last Tuesday.
oil production moves abroad, Landrieu said, "We will export some of
these problems to countries less equipped and less inclined to prevent
this kind of catastrophic disaster."
Others, however, say
that such drilling closer to home is too risky. In California, where
imports of foreign oil are a record 48 percent, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger recently pulled his support for an offshore project,
citing concerns over the spill in the Gulf. Similar shifts have
occurred elsewhere, including Florida and Virginia, where some
lawmakers who once supported drilling now are distancing themselves
"You turn on the television and see this
enormous disaster, you say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take that
kind of risk?' " Schwarzenegger said at a news conference.
In poor countries such as Ecuador, people don't have a choice.
impacts here have been enormous," said Esperanza Martinez, Ecuador
coordinator for the international environmental group Oilwatch. "We
calculate 1 million hectares" - 2.5 million acres - "have been
Four decades of spills and leaks by oil
companies there, including some from the United States, have fouled
thousands of miles of jungle streams and wetland zones.
does this all mean to the people? It means high levels of illness in
the petroleum zones, where they have 30 percent more cancer," Martinez
said. "The worst indicators of poverty are right next to petroleum
For its part, the Western States Petroleum
Association, which represents U.S. oil companies, argues that tapping
America's offshore oil is more responsible, but the Gulf spill will
only make that more difficult, said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the group's
"We have to re-earn the confidence, relearn
the lessons and move on to explore and access these resources
domestically, so we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil,"
Much of California's disdain for
drilling stems from a 1969 well blowout near Santa Barbara that killed
some 3,700 seabirds and captured nationwide attention.
historic standards, it was a significant but not gigantic spill: More
than 3 million gallons leaked, compared with 11 million from the Exxon
Valdez in Alaska in 1989 and four million gallons so far from the BP
Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf.
Barbara spill had a super-sized impact, however, jump-starting an era
of environmental activism and helping to inspire the first Earth Day a
"A lot of the oil ended up on the coast,
where people are highly sensitized to their environment and activist by
nature," said Tupper Hull, the vice president of strategic
communications for the Western States Petroleum Association.
spills are terrible things to see," he said. "They have a visual and
visceral and emotional impact on people that cannot be trivialized."
Santa Barbara spill "set off a chain of events that created an
orthodoxy on this issue," he said. "It was a game-changer, not unlike
what's now taking place in the Gulf of Mexico."
pollution-control efforts in the Gulf are said to be unprecedented.
They include the deployment of more than 100 miles of protective booms
and the use of more than 400,000 gallons of chemical dispersant to
break up the oil. Scores of state and federal agencies are helping,
too, including the Army National Guard.
happen in Nigeria, the fourth-largest source of foreign oil in the
U.S., according to Bassey, the environmental leader.
"Officially, there are over 2,000 oil spill sites that need environmental remediation," he said.
Nigeria, oil firms "wield the big stick and work with state security to
silence complaints," Bassey charged. "Pollution impacts fisheries,
agriculture and human health. Thanks to the industry, life expectancy
is lowest in the oil communities."
Last year, Amnesty
International published a report on the Niger Delta region, saying,
"Oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring are endemic."
one of the major operators in the Delta, acknowledges that conditions
are difficult. On its website it says that most pollution isn't its
fault, however. "Most oil spills - 98 percent by volume in 2009 - are
the direct result of militancy and other criminal activity," the
However, Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian
environmentalist in the U.S., called West Africa "the wild, wild west
of pollution. It's lawless."
Oil companies pollute "with impunity," he said. "There are no consequences."
northern Alberta, where oil companies are mining tarlike sands,
converting them to crude and piping about 830,000 barrels a day south
to the United States, indigenous people such as Harpe have complained
for years about pollution, illness and the destruction of wildlife
"It doesn't matter what we say," Harpe said by
phone from her home along the Athabasca River in the booming "oil
sands" region. "It seems to go in one ear and out the other. We are
"What we're seeing in the Gulf is very
acute, whereas what's unfolding in the oil sands is much more chronic,"
said Dan Woynillowicz, the director of external relations for the
Pembina Institute, a Calgary environmental group. "As a result, the
scale and consequence are not catching the attention of the U.S. media,
public and politicians, despite the fact that U.S. oil demand is
driving the expansion of oil sands development."
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the disturbance is
manageable and the mined areas can be reclaimed. "We will mitigate our
impact on the land while maintaining regional ecosystems and
biodiversity," the group says on its website.
In the Third World, oil companies operate differently from the way they do in Canada or the United States, activists say.
they go into a country like Ecuador or Peru, where there is no
meaningful regulation, they take advantage of that," charged Kimerling,
the law professor. "They are more careless, and go in with an attitude
that they can do whatever they want.
"The U.S. government
has not shown any interest in the environmental disasters that are
being caused by our companies in other countries."
think they should," she added. "When we have oil spills in this country
we care, we respond, we do everything possible to try to minimize
"But when our companies spill oil in other
countries - and those governments don't respond - we don't, either. It
sends a chilling message that we don't care."
(Knudson is a staff writer for The Sacramento Bee. Bee Photographer Hector Amezcua contributed to this report.