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Complete and Utter Disaster

April 29, 2010

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.

  1. April 29, 2010 10:00 am

    Sad to say, but a very well written analysis of our current predicament. The tendency of our society to view technology as a messianic religion simply has to come to an end. It’s insanity to trust some corporate false god with our future!

    The true cost of fossil fuel addiction is only beginning to raise its ugly head. It is ginormous. Let’s cut the subsidies, hold energy companies completely responsible for cleaning up the messes they create, and then let them try to compete in the free market. Perhaps then we will begin to see the emergence of environmentally responsible forms of energy.
    Oh, yeah, I forgot: guess that is unlikely to happen in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling re: corporations and elections.

  2. Nate permalink*
    April 29, 2010 12:03 pm

    @Dad- I don’t know if I agree with a full free market for energy. If that was the case no one would be able to afford any sort of energy. But the gov’t does have a responsibility, and even an obligation, to subsidize energy sources that are more sustainable and responsible. But an objective view of energy’s pros and cons has never occurred because there’s so much dishonesty out there.

    I suppose too, that I have a slightly different view of the Citizens United decision too. I don’t know that it changes a whole lot as elections have always been awash in corporate money, but the corporations have had to hide their influence. Citizens United sort of makes things more transparent, so it’s clear where and who the money is coming from, which I think is generally a good thing. I support the idea that if corporations are funneling money to candidates or causes, it should be crystal clear who and how much they’re giving. I think it’s a “be careful what you wish for” moment for corporate America.

  3. April 29, 2010 12:50 pm

    This gives me the creeps and makes me wanna cry.

  4. Dan Smith permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:57 pm

    Excellent post! I got here by way of a tip from Nicole. Thanks, Nicole!

  5. April 29, 2010 1:20 pm

    I intended to go to the coast this weekend. Now I have mixed emotions about it. I could go where the oil is and document the unfolding tragedy for myself; the other thought is I could go to a different part of the coast and try to avoid exposing myself to what will undoubtedly be a horrific, upsetting scene. This time of year is the worst for a spill. Endangered sea turtles are nesting; birds are nesting; migrants are passing through; life is trying to focus on reproducing.

    This whole mess insults the essence of this season; it also offends the very heart of me for the very reasons you point out, Nate. It’s too sad that few see the problems and even fewer see a need to act. The truth is that most people think about change, but only if it’s someone else’s change. Things have to be different so long as it affects the other guy, and even then only if it doesn’t hit me in the wallet. Shameful yet predictable.

  6. Nate permalink*
    April 29, 2010 1:41 pm

    @Nicole- You and me both.

    @Dan- Thanks for the kind words!

    @Jason- The timing is part of what makes it so heavy. It’s just the overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of a massive hit to something you care about so much. I keep looking to the powers that be for some sort of sign that they are taking this as seriously as they should and the lack of a proportional response is so unbelievably frustrating I can barely stand it.

    I’m also having a hard time accepting the media’s acquiescence to the elected officials who would sell their states out supporting the actions that leads to this. No hard questions are being asked. No feet being held to the fire. No long view taken. What pathetic toadies they are.

  7. Don Margeson permalink
    April 29, 2010 8:52 pm

    Between Saturday April 24th and Wednesday April 28th, hundreds of migrant songbirds were seen washing up on the beaches Of Pinellas, Okaloosa and Walton Counties on the gulf coast of Florida. In Okaloosa and Walton County, Shearwaters and Petrels were also washing up. Officially they say it was the severe weather system that moved across the gulf on friday, saturday and sunday.

    • April 29, 2010 11:48 pm

      The world is full of ignorants and greedy people.
      As long as they can they will try to deny it 😦

      Wonder how long it will take until we finally manage to self-destruct us and all around us

  8. April 29, 2010 10:58 pm

    It’s completely amazing to me how little this has been. I mean, this thing is Exxon Valdez big, and in a heavy neotropic migrant channel, as you mentioned. Yet apparently squabbling politics and the latest celebrity adopting an African orphan seem to be more important. I mean, am I the only one who watched Captain Planet as a kid? Back then, Captain Planet was great at teaching kids an environmental message. I don’t think there’s anything on the public’s viewscreen with such messages, and the under-representation of the oil spill in the media just exemplifies this problem.

  9. birdingperu permalink
    April 30, 2010 2:12 am

    I am disgusted. I don’t know what else to say. Thanks for this well written excellent report, Nate. Hope it echoes all the way to DC. I have shared on my SM platforms. While I am at it, I am digging, stumbling and GBuzz it…. I suggest everyone else do the same.

  10. Charlie Moores permalink
    April 30, 2010 3:42 am

    Excellent Nate.

    I wish that people on our side of the debate could at the very least take some heart in the thought that this will be a turning point in our relationship with oil but I’m sure it won’t be. As demand for what is becoming an increasingly difficult resource to reach grows and grows there will be more corners cut, more promises broken, and more disasters of the same ilk.

    Oh well, our birds are screwed, but at least the banks are back in profit – the world is still a great place after all.. *sigh*

  11. Nate permalink*
    April 30, 2010 11:30 am

    @Don- Migration is dangerous business. I would wonder how much of that is regular attrition and how much is a result of the oil spill. A necropsy at the state science museum would probably get to the bottom of whether the seabirds in particular were ingesting any oil.

    @Robert- Yeah, I think the true magnitude of this has yet to enter the consciousness of the average American. Once it hits the beaches, and then when people realize that the oil is still coming and isn’t stopping I think it will be an awful wakeup call. And yes, I watched Captain Planet. Oh that it were that easy… 🙂

    @Gunnar- Thanks Gunnar. I do appreciate the buzz.

    @Charlie- I would hope that this is the watershed moment, but I fear that may be a few weeks off yet, but the impotence in response to this so far is soul-crushing. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that ignoring this means it’s not as bad, and that it somehow isn’t a referendum on offshore drilling.

    This myth that oil companies are technologically capable of tackling this needs to be absolutely destroyed. But I’m not holding my breath as making excuses for criminal behavior is practically a craft industry among these people.

  12. Bill Hill permalink
    April 30, 2010 1:10 pm

    BP’s profit in the FIRST QUARTER of this year was $6.079billion, according to the official report on their website.


  1. Couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

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