Spill, baby, spill!

The inevitable consequences of oil dependency

Ladies and Gentlemen, add British Petroleum to your list of gas stations to avoid. While “Beyond Petroleum” had some success with a massive rebranding campaign that briefly convinced the public that the petrochemical giant was greener than Greenpeace (see a troubling 2008 UK study), the ongoing Gulf of Mexico spill will surely smear its green, floral logo.

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burst into flames, killing 11 workers before sinking below the surface. Despite early assurances from BP that no oil was leaking, by April 24 we knew that wasn’t the case. Officially, 210,000 gallons of oil are billowing to the surface every day — though some satellite analyses of the spill’s extent suggest the rate might be up to four times higher (as fast as 10 gallons per second). For comparison, the legal maximum flow rate for showerheads in the US is just 2.5 gallons per minute.

Two weeks later, oil is lapping at the edges of the Louisiana coast, and New Orleans is filled with the stench of hydrocarbons. An offshore well that was supposed to be out of sight and out of mind (some 45 miles from shore and 1 mile beneath the sea surface) is now the dominant topic of conversation.

The timing is both ironic, scarcely one month after President Obama opened key coastal waters to offshore drilling, and tragic. It’s migration season for millions of birds, which must now forage amid poisoned marshlands. It’s also nesting season for endangered sea turtles, which must now drag themselves up oil-slicked beaches. The turtles, by the way, face a double threat: They may be entangled in the nets of shrimp boats, which are springing to action in a last-ditch effort to scoop up the crustaceans before oil shuts down the fishery, as it already has the oyster industry and local finfisheries. First estimates predict $2.5 billion in fishery losses, with another $3 billion lost in tourism revenues.

Meanwhile, the human element is busy doing the finger-pointing dance of impotence, unable to staunch the subterranean flow of oil or contain the surface slick. Some of the excuses are valid. Murphy’s law has summoned rough weather to the area, sloshing oil over floating booms set out to contain the spill and washing the inky slick far back into already-degraded coastal wetlands. Some rationalizations are more troubling: Automatic shutoffs have failed and containment equipment is absent or inadequate.

As response teams recruit fishermen to crew cleanup craft, and volunteers hustle oiled birds and marine mammals into rehabilitation centers, there’s hushed, fearful talk of just how bad this could get. If the spill isn’t contained, prevailing currents — especially the Gulf Stream — could funnel oil through the Straits of Florida (full of coral reefs and seagrass beds) and up the East Coast.

But BP could never have predicted a disaster of this “unprecedented” magnitude, or so it says amid half-baked attempts to defend its lack of preparedness.

That’s a funny choice of words since, thirty-one years ago, the second largest spill in history occurred right there in the Gulf of Mexico. The Ixtoc 1 was an exploratory oil well run by Mexican company Pemex which clogged, then blew, in June of 1979. About 150 million gallons of crude oil spilled out before the well was finally capped — on March 23, 1980.

That’s nine months after the explosion. And nine years (to the day) before the infamous Exxon Valdez spill that overlaid our national vision of pristine Alaskan waters with snapshots of oily bald eagles and dead sea otters.

Oh, is that why some of your friends refuse to refuel at Exxon pumps? You might also know people who avoid Shell (some awkwardness surrounding waste dumping and executions in Nigeria), Texaco (and now, Chevron, which inherited its exploitation mess in Ecuador), or Citgo (on the principle that a 60’x60’ flashing sign is an eyesore — if Venezuelan politics weren’t enough).

The environmental violators list keeps growing. And we still haven’t added its most important member: you. Each year, we Americans spill 180 million gallons of used oil when we refuel our lawnmowers, change the oil in our cars, and generally go about our daily business. That’s sixteen times the volume of the Valdez spill — more, even, than the Ixtoc 1 incident.

Worldwide, NASA estimates that 37 million gallons of oil are lost each year in big, newsworthy spills. But 363 million gallons are quietly dumped “down the drain” in small drips and spills or through improper disposal; an additional 137 million gallons are spilled during routine maintenance — like washing out the holds of oil tankers.

But even if this Gulf spill is just a splash in the global waste bucket (read: the ocean), its acute severity might just provide a wake up call that’s audible over the baseline noise. Stalin said that “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Before our eyes, the world is slowly dying of our oil thirst. But maybe this giant puncture will do what a thousand small cuts from global warming, terrorism, and rising gas prices couldn’t. Maybe we will finally acknowledge that the oil business, be it domestic or abroad, is a dirty one, and no hands will be clean until we wash ours of fossil fuel dependency.

If there’s a will to change, though, we must exercise it quickly. Our alternative energy prospects are ready for action, and we should let them join the big leagues while the memory of BP’s spill is still fresh. Because forty years ago in Santa Barbara, CA, twenty years ago in Valdez, AK, and four years ago on Alaska’s North Slope, we cried foul and vowed, “Never again!” But, after we passed a few laws and collected a few fines, those memories faded. Now, “again” has happened, again. And history will continue to repeat itself, unless today is the day we take a stand.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes reader feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu. This is a special edition of “Seeing Green,” which usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.