The worst-case scenario goes 'photogenic'

The environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, following the blow-out and sinking of Deepwater Horizon, a BP oil drilling rig off Louisiana, has its first representative avian face of disaster. Unnamed but tagged number 1, a northern gannet rescued close to the spot where the Deepwater Horizon imploded nearly two weeks ago after an explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers, was pulled from the water by a crew sent to try to contain the spill. The oil-covered bird actually swam toward his recusers. He is now recovering in a hangar in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, that has been converted into a bird hospital, the first of what will no doubt become a huge influx of injured and dying bird life. The number of sea and sky life already killed by the spill is unknowable as is the depth and breadth of this unnatural disaster in the Gulf. This one will soon defy existing categorizations. I am already out of synonyms for disaster.

“Worst-case scenarios almost never happen," Bob Thomas, of the Centre for Environmental Communication at Loyola University in New Orleans, told the Times UK. "In this case, almost everybody I have known with technical knowledge of oil spills, people who have worked in the industry 30, 40 years, well, they say this is the worst-case scenario . . . it is upon us. I never feel comfortable being Chicken Little, but I have looked at this every way I can and I have at this point at least mild despair, if not sinking depression.”


There is still no clear indication that any of the experts assembled by the federal government and BP have any idea of how to contain the oil slick, much less stop the 5,000 barrels of oil a day from spewing from wellhead. A resolution could be weeks or even months away, and by that time the slick, having menaced the Gulf States, will be heading up the East Coast following the Gulf Stream. Another large price to pay for our national addiction to low prices at the gas pump.

Just as some immigration reform activists have found a tarnished silver lining to Arizona's new "show us your papers" law as a national wake-up call, Paul Krugman looks for a bright, or at least unoil-slicked side to the Deepwater debacle. He says it may similarly arouse a new generation of Americans to their ecological accountability:

Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog. It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems. Air quality improved: smog alerts in Los Angeles, which used to have more than 100 a year, have become rare. Rivers stopped burning, and some became swimmable again. And Lake Erie has come back to life, in part thanks to a ban on laundry detergents containing phosphates.

Yet there was a downside to this success story.

For one thing, as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”

This latest disaster, he says, could make ecological calamity "photogenic" again:

For the gulf blowout is a pointed reminder that the environment won’t take care of itself, that unless carefully watched and regulated, modern technology and industry can all too easily inflict horrific damage on the planet.

I hope he's right, but the way ahead, both out of this immediate calamity and toward a future that is liberated from our reliance on fossil fuels, remains as murky as Gulf waters. Aside from meager protests supporting wind and solar alternatives, I'm afraid that when my kids ask what I did while BP turned the Gulf of Mexico into the world's largest oil slick, I won't have much to tell them. I may, however, get the bike out of the garage. Soon.

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8 years 5 months ago
There is a procedure for just this type of event that has been in place since 1994 that would have eliminated most of the oil spill if implemented immediately.  It has not been implemented and probably couldn't have been implemented since the necessary equipment was never put in place anywhere in the Gulf area.  They are now scouring the globe looking for the proper equipment and may have found some in South America.  But it may be too late for the oil that has already dispersed.
Also most deep water rigs in other areas of the world have remote shut off systems which from what I understand this one apparently did not have.  
Stanley Kopacz
8 years 5 months ago
There are many possible natural sources of disaster: asteroids, supervolcanoes, new viruses, coronal mass ejections. But we just can't wait. We have to cause our own problems for a few measly bucks.

Let's get away from the primitive burning technologies and start gleaning the vast amount of energy available flowing naturally through the environment on its way to entropy.

Anywhere you have a temperature difference, you have usable energy. The temperature difference between the depths of the Gulf of Mexico and the surface could be a source of energy, for instance. Surface temperatures are the fuel of hurricanes. Why not harness it. It may turn out to be impractical, but it is only one of many possibilities.

So many possiblilities. But it takes long term thinking and commitment, beyond the short term motivations of the capitalist market. It takes national commitment.
8 years 5 months ago
Until you can convince rich Liberals to allow sufficient wind farms off their Cape Cod estates (not the half-measure only temporarily approved), I would thank well-meaning but misinformed hyper-environmentalists to keep their hands off the Gulf Coast's economy.


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