Complete and Utter Disaster
Far too little has been made in the national media of the oil well fire in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 platform workers and spurred a well leak that is currently spewing 42,000 gallons of crude oil per day into the ocean with absolutely no sign of abatement. The national media prefers to focus on the tit-for-tat in the US Congress between Republicans and Democrats on whether immigration, financial reform, or cap and trade is the next piece of legislation to be watered down into complete ineffectiveness (completely ignoring the fact that yes, we Americans do in fact expect our elected officials to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time). I suppose it’s better political theatrics, which is what they think we care about in lieu of actual accomplishments but those self-same elected officials, including the President himself, have been mostly mum on the subject. Whatever, but I suspect the oil spill is about to get a lot more play as it’s sticky tendrils reach closer and closer to the fish-spawning Louisiana marshes and the white sand Spring Break meccas of Florida.
Of course, the irony of the situation, that this exploratory well (and I can’t stress that enough) blows not even a month from the time that President Obama goes all in on the asinine “Drill, baby, drill” mantra, in which he approves exploratory drilling along a massive stretch of the Gulf and East coast of the US, is obvious. If there ever was a more apropos cautionary tale about the dangers of offshore drilling anywhere, I certainly haven’t seen it. We’ve been told time and time again from White House officials of the last several administrations, all speaking with the noxious, excremental voice of Big Oil, that offshore drilling is safe. That the technology is sound. And maybe it truly is in principle, but there’s no way in hell that vehemently anti-labor, anti-regulatory, anti-everything industry of petroleum extraction is going to abide by the safety standards when those standards interfere with their bottom line. Perhaps nothing short of the reality of a completely wrecked gamefish and oyster fishery and tourism industry will be enough to silence both the industry hacks selling the criminally dishonest line that the globally miniscule amount of oil pumped out of our seabeds is a game changer and the ignorants who buy those lies at face value. Is one cent of savings at the pump worth the complete devastation of the “most beautiful beaches in the world”? I fear we may soon get an answer to that question.
But that’s the future. The current reality is gut-wrenching enough. All attempts to shut off the gusher have proven, thus far, unsuccessful. The robotic submarines, apparently the height of extraction technology, have failed people. And the next best action, involving the drilling of a secondary well to release the pressure of the first one will take months. I repeat, months. All during which 42,000 gallons (EDIT: now it’s 210,000 gallons a day!) will continue spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every single day. By the time the secondary well is finished, close to 4.5 million gallons of crude oil will have been unceremoniously dumped into the Gulf of Mexico (EDIT: Independent analysts say now it’s 800,000 gallons per day in which case we’re at 12 million gallons already). I think that is the most mind-numbing part of it. This is not a wrecked ship with a known quantity of oil spreading on the surface, it’s an oil deposit 5000 feet beneath the surface who’s parameters are unknown, gushing oil 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with absolutely no end in sight. A three dimensional oil-brella. The world’s most disgusting ice cream cone.
But, thanks be to Exxon, a solution has arisen, enacted by the Coast Guard yesterday, to set the slick on fire and burn the oil off. So in light of all the professed technology possessed by the modern oil industry that makes deep sea oil drilling “safe”, the best solution is the same way you or I might deal with a pile of leaves. Fallout, apparently, be damned. Dwelling too much on this sort of thing makes one physically sick. Perhaps not as sick as breathing the air in Florida for the next few months, but you get it.
It’s at this point that the issue becomes one that should be near and dear to birders. We’re in the midst of spring migration, a time of year when hundreds of thousands of neotropical migrating songbirds are teeming onto our continent from parts south, many of them taking a route that famously leads them to jump the Gulf of Mexico in one swoop. It’s a flight that can take up to 20 hours and leaves birds completely famished and exhausted. To say that it’s difficult is an understatement. It’s one of the truly amazing behaviors in the natural world. And now at the peak of migration, for those birds taking a path straight across the gulf with a bullseye on, perhaps, crucial bits of coastal habitat like Alabama’s Dauphin Island or Florida’s St. Mark’s NWR, the last stretch of migration has to be through a sooty, black curtain of oil smoke several thousand feet high. I think it’s safe to say that fallouts will be limited this year. Not that that’s a concern for the Coast Guard, obvious bird experts that they are:
“Based on our limited experience, birds and mammals are more capable of handling the risk of a local fire and temporary smoke plume than of handling the risk posed by a spreading oil slick. Birds flying in the plume can become disoriented, and could suffer toxic effects. This risk, however, is minimal when compared to oil coating and ingestion.”
Clearly they see the primary concern to be the sea-going birds hunting for food during the day who will be able to see the smoke cloud and presumably avoid it. Nocturnal migrants however, or songbirds for whom a several hundred mile detour is completely out of the question, have apparently not been considered. And where do they get off considering this is a “temporary smoke plume”? Has the leak stopped? Is the oil somehow magically disappearing between the blown pipe and the surface? Are the laws of combustion in response to a steady fuel source somehow suspended all of a sudden? The permanent fix is still several months out. I have a hard time believing that it’s not a fairly reasonable possibility that this smoke cloud will not abate for those many months or that this fairly obvious fact hasn’t been considered by the authorities.
That, of course is even if this ridiculous plan even works. A burnoff of fuel has been tried in the past, though that was an experiment in Newfoundland in 1993 (.pdf). This situation differs from that in several important ways, the first of which is that the oil in the Newfoundland experiment was on the surface of the water whereas the majority of the crude in this case is coming from beneath the surface and unless the geniuses at the Coast Guard have figured out a way to burn through water they’ll likely create a massive smoke plume without doing a single thing to prevent the landfall of massive globules of crude oil on Gulf beaches. I suppose that is what is known as lose-lose.
I guess that this burning business is simple the least bad situation of a group of incredibly awful situations. It’s hard to know what the right thing is with regard to what has already occurred short of screaming and banging your head into a wall over and over and over, which from experience, accomplishes very little. But going forward the answer is undeniably clear, this completely wrongheaded and blatantly patronizing attempt by the Obama Administration to suddenly “see the light” on allowing exploratory offshore drilling has to end and the oil industry has to be called out for their continued and continuing lies about safety and environmental impact of these actions. We need clear leadership from the very top to know that this is the sort of thing that cannot be allowed to ever happen again and that starts with re-instituting the moratorium on offshore drilling in light of, and with direct reference to, this epically catastrophic disaster.
If the Obama Administration cannot do that, then all of the cynicism engendered in the way this Administration, one I’m finding it increasingly difficult to make excuses for, has handled its responsibilities to the American people with regard to environmental policy is completely justified.