The Price of the Pelican

The subtitle of the BP oil spill is the Price of the Pelican. We will never fully know the cost of this spill to wildlife and wetlands, because it will continue its slow-motion rampage long after the lawyers have settled. Rowan Gould, the acting director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said the spill "in all likelihood will affect fish and wildlife resources in the Gulf and across the North American continent for years, if not decades to come.''

We also will never fully know the spill's cost because of its unprecedented depth of 5,000 feet below the water's surface in the Gulf of Mexico, beyond the reach of sunlight and human beings. Rich Ambrose, the director of the environmental science and engineering program at UCLA, told the Associated Press that he fears the worst impacts will be to zooplankton and invertebrates that fuel the fisheries in the deep. Roger Helm, the head of Fish and Wildlife's contaminants division, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "What we know about spills up to this point in time is almost entirely based on surface releases or near-surface releases. We don't understand exactly how the oil is moving from depth up, whether it breaks into a zillion little particles or droplets or whether it comes up in a stream.''

A study in the journal Science, conducted 14 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989 and fouled 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline, found that pink salmon, sea otters, harlequin ducks were either still dying or not reproducing at "astounding'' rates. Exxon settled with the federal government and the state of Alaska in 1991 for $1 billion for environmental restoration, but lead researcher Charles Peterson of the University of North Carolina said toxic levels of oil from the disaster continued to contaminate the food chain for wildlife in "surprisingly large'' hidden pools in sediment and underneath boulders.

Yet, Exxon's lawyers fought for nearly 20 years against any punitive responsibility for the disaster, until it was able to convince the conservative Supreme Court to slash a $5 billion jury award for damages down to $508 million, which made it easy for them to agree to pay an additional $470 million in interest. Thus one can take no assurance from BP that it will, as it states in its nationwide ad campaign, "make this right.'' It is less assuring, if that is possible, that two years from now, you will see BP specialists "combing the shore along with US Fish and Wildlife, NOAA and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries.''

No, the price of pelicans, marshes, zooplankton, and fish is up to others. Last week, the United Nations, in eerie timing, published a report that found that the world's ecosystems are worth $72 trillion a year, comparable to the world's gross national income, but that nearly two-thirds of them are degraded. The report said the world's wetlands have an economic value of $7 trillion, that is, if we keep them healthy from activities such as oil drilling.

"Many of the world's key crops, such as coffee, tea and mangoes are dependent on the pollination and pest control services of birds and insects,'' the report said. ". . . ecosystems such as sea-grasses, tidal marshes and tropical forests are also important in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.''

In a microcosm of this, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 35 million people visited our national wildlife refuges in 2006, spending $1.7 billion in their regional economies and generating or maintaining 27,000 jobs. The reports asked, "Can a dollar figure -- a price tag, if you will -- be attached to people's dawning understanding of the marvelous workings of the natural world? What's it worth to maintain and preserve the habitat?''

The BP disaster presents a perfect time to answer these questions, as wildlife experts scramble to save oiled pelicans, turtles, and other creatures. The fact that we yet cannot answer the question should be even more cause for the federal government to maintain a moratorium on offshore oil drilling. The Exxon Valdez should have taught us that.

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