Environmental historian Brian Black talks about impacts of oil spill

Historians in the News

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the April explosion of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 crew members, has poured about 100 million gallons of oil into the water and caused significant damage to ecology and industry. It is already considered the largest offshore spill in U.S. history and may be among the largest spills in the world. It may also be among the worst industrial disasters in modern history.

"At this point we're just going to be estimating because it is at a scale and dimension that we just haven't seen before," says environmental historian Brian Black, a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona.

Black notes that while the current crisis cannot be minimized, it also is important to consider the historical context of the spill and how it could impact our fuel consumption and policies in the future.

How does this compare with other environmental catastrophes, such as the chemical gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India or the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska?

Black: When we begin to try to imagine the possible implications of this spill, we focus on the surface oil, where you have some comparative possibilities with Valdez. The problem with this spill is the undersea pockets, the plumes. The oil is coming from the bottom of the body of water and has many more opportunities to impact the ecosystem. Frankly, that's off the radar screen. This is a lab experiment to see what kind of implications such a spill will have over the long term. We haven't even gotten to the point yet where we know what the size of the spill will be as the oil continues to flow.

In other industrial accidents, such as the spill in Bhopal, you have oversight or industrial ethics that have lapsed. These become part of the issue as well. Very often that becomes the catalyst for change and regulation or change in the way business is conducted. In incidents such as Bhopal, you have the added dimension of conflict between a developed world and a less-developed world. What is different about the situation with the Gulf Spill is that it is an international situation, with a global, British-based company that has caused this disaster on American soil. The U.S. has to deal with that in a profoundly new way. It's the United States having to deal with one of its great international friends in a situation that is a tragic one for its people and ecology. There are all sorts of complications here....

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