Apocalypse Again

It's happened before but you wouldn't know it reading the New
York Times
. On April 28, the Times wrote a "Gulf Spill"
editorial defending continued offshore oil and gas exploration. Without
questioning its source it wrote, "the federal Minerals Management
Service says there have been no major spills -- defined as 1,000 barrels
or more -- in the last 15 years, a period that includes Hurricane
Katrina. In that context, the blowout -- while tragic and destructive --
can be seen as a freak occurrence."

But when I was down in the Gulf covering Hurricane Katrina less than
five years ago, the Coast Guard reported that over eight million gallons
of oil spilled in and around the Gulf, more than two thirds of an Exxon
Valdez. Of course, that wasn't from the 180 rigs damaged, destroyed or
set adrift like the Jack Up rig Ocean Warwick that I saw grounded in
the surf on Dauphin Island Alabama. The MMS, parsing things very finely
indeed, was only counting spills from active offshore rigs, not the
pipelines, onshore tank farms, refineries and other infrastructure
essential to offshore operations.

While traveling the Gulf between hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I was
reminded of war zones I'd previously covered, seeing fewer casualties
(about 1,600 dead at the time) but far wider destruction. I was
convinced that after the dead were all counted and mourned, the massive
oil spill would become a major media story. But it never did, much to my
surprise and that of some of the Coast Guard Environmental Strike Team
members I later interviewed for my book Rescue Warriors. Nor
have we heard much about the half million gallons of oil spilled in the
Gulf last year when I flew with the Coasties into Hurricane Ike in
Texas. Nor has there been any talk of the persistent leaks and pollution
that comes from the rigs I've visited in the Gulf or of the spills that
drift down the Mississippi from upriver refineries and barge traffic --
like the more than 60,000 gallon spill last year that hardly made the
news outside southern Louisiana.

Of course, for a disaster on the scale of what we're now seeing, you'd
either have to go back to the 2009 blow-out in the Timor Sea off
Australia that took months to get under control but was largely ignored
by the U.S. media or, if you want a Gulf of Mexico precedent you'd have
to go back to 1979 when the Mexican-owned and U.S.-operated Ixtoc
platform exploded, gushing 150 million gallons of oil in a fiery
uncontrolled spill that lasted ten months and fouled the beaches of
Texas, including the Los Padres National Seashore. (Several men died
trying to control it.) Although some coastal communities were up in
arms, the oil-dependent state government kept notably silent during that
ongoing eco-disaster.

But of course, the history of offshore oil and gas development has
always seen industry moving rapidly into new frontier waters and then
trying to develop "safer drilling technologies" only after disaster
strikes, whether you're talking about the oil-slimed drilling piers and
gushers of Summerland California in the late 19th century, the Union
blow-out in Santa Barbara in 1969, the Deep Waters of the oil fouled
Gulf today or the Arctic Ocean of tomorrow where the industry doesn't
even pretend to have technology capable of cleaning up a spill on or
under sea ice.

I once asked the former chief of the environmental division of the
Mineral Management Service why the agency has never canceled an oil
lease sale based on its own oil-spill risk assessments. His response:
"It's hard to make or break something as big as a lease on one issue."

The debate used to be between marine pollution and energy. Today
it's no longer just about the loss of lives and livelihoods, destruction
of America's wetlands or America's most productive coastline that we're
seeing. It's also a product liability issue. This product, used as
directed, overheats our planet. Among other actions needed, it's time
to re-establish the moratorium on any new offshore drilling that was
abolished in the waning days of the Bush Administration and also for the
Obama administration to stop pretending we can drill our way to clean
energy and start making a more serious commitment to offshore wind and
wave energy, ocean thermal, algae-fuels and other carbon free
possibilities. After all, no ecosystem has ever been destroyed by a
wind spill.

I've been on BP deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and I mourn the
loss of their people killed and injured along with the tens of thousands
of other people now being affected. I respect the roughnecks and
roustabouts I met on the drill decks working the hydraulic tongs and the
derrick men above them leaning out from their monkey boards like
trapeze artists to grasp the pipe tops and line them up with the rubber
mud hoses dropping down from above. They all worked together in a loud,
clattering, steel-toed ballet to move those pipe strings down through
thousands of feet of seawater and tens of thousands of feet of rock
knowing the risks. Some wore T-shrits reading, "New Rig, New People,
New Records." They showed the same professional pride as America's
19th-century whalers with their harpoons and try pots, who, by
extracting leviathans' living oil, lit and lubricated an earlier
industrial age until they too passed into history. I've also seen
enough oiled birds up close and personal. It's all too awful and it's
time to move on.

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