Now that the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been at least temporarily staunched, BP is retrenching. They have a new chief executive and plans to set aside money that should cover their cleanup and compensation costs, and they're already talking about growth. One of the most interesting facets, to me at least, is that their plan rests on the assumption that they won't be found grossly negligent. I am no legal expert, but they may well be right, and that's a really important thing to understand. The media have had a field day excoriating BP as if they are uniquely bad, but really the problem is their whole industry.
I blogged about this back in June, and made the argument that the sheer scale of the oil industry makes spills simply inevitable. The news in the past week could not have done more to underscore that point. I learned that since the main Gulf spill started, there have been at least three other, unrelated oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I read about the pipeline leak in Southern Michigan; an incident so comparatively minor that it only gets a paragraph in the New York Times, because 'only' 800,000 gallons of oil fouled the Kalamazoo River. Not to mention the spill in Dalian, China last week, or almost 1000 spills per year in Nigeria. To focus on one incident or one company is to miss the bigger picture that this ongoing catastrophe is ultimately caused by the embedding of oil products through every level of our economy, and getting oil is inherently polluting and dangerous.
The impact of all this is not trivial. Paul Crane, a friend of Sustainable Seattle, described a recent trip to his native Florida recently in the Pensacola News Journal:
As the plane banked over Santa Rosa Island I remembered the many times and ways I have traveled to Pensacola, both to visit and to live there.
As a small child detraining from the L&N Hummingbird at Flomaton and hopping another train to Pensacola's station; later, in grade school and high school when I came to live in Pensacola, with the smells of the Gulf wafting through the car window as dawn broke, after an all-night drive. I remember, at night, lying awake listening to the whippoorwills calling through the pine and oak forests and awaiting endless weekends in the beach dunes, wearing Saturday smiles with my friends.
Now, returning yet again for a visit, I gaze through from the plane on an almost apocalyptic landscape. The coastal barrier island appears a ribbon of white sand with people-less beaches. Lots of cars parked and people scurrying around upland, but human-less in or near the water on a sunny day.
Several hundred yards off shore, just past the murky water, in the littoral zone that was always light emerald green, lay a dark, shiny sheen of oil that spread to the horizon. A sick feeling rose in my stomach and a small tear whelmed in my eye. What I had seen in newsprint and TV screen was now live, right before my eyes.
Only later, when I made my way to Casino Beach for an attempted swim, was the grim reality realized. The best metaphor I could conjure compares the yellow front loaders moving sand as a funeral procession in front of the dying Gulf's dead zone, an aquatic graveyard. As one friend, a native, put it, "I took some of my first steps on that beach, as did my children and grandchildren."
Today the beach sand has been classified as hazardous waste, and the Gulf is dying.
It's worth reading his whole letter, which goes on to suggest some solutions (and assigns blame a little differently from me). I wanted to share this excerpt to underscore that this is not an abstrtact issue. In the end people suffer because of our insatiable appetite for oil.