The Real Lessons of the Gulf Oil Spill

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Frank Uekoetter is a Dilthey Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung and Deputy Director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. His books include The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (2006) and The Age of Smoke. Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880-1970 (2009).

This spring it was easy to be an environmentalist.  Or so it seemed.

It is not unusual to see people protesting after an oil spill.  The amazing thing about this one was that everybody was on board.  Environmentalists were quick to point to the damage done by the oil, and by the chemicals used to disperse it.  Government officials lambasted the deficiencies of disaster preparations and the faults of the Minerals Management Service.  Even Republicans were glad to talk about “Obama’s Katrina,” a remarkable feat of amnesia for the party of “Drill Baby Drill.”  It seemed that the only ones not joining the chorus were those unfortunate individuals who happened to be employees of BP.  It would all have been great if this had been an actual outburst of environmental awareness.  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.  

The irony is that if someone were to custom-make a disaster for the American society of 2010, it would probably look very similar to the one that actually happened.  At the risk of sounding cynical, Deepwater Horizon was an all-too-perfect opportunity to vent our collective anger.  It was about irresponsible corporations, feeding on the anti-business mood in the wake of the financial meltdown.  It was about the agony of regulation in the age of globalization.  It was about nature, allowing environmentalists to recover from the Copenhagen summit disaster.  It was also the perfect metaphor for a U.S. government that, faced with a realignment of global capitalism, is expected to achieve the impossible—save the economy, balance the budget, and to look good doing it.  The media contributed to the general excitement with frontline reports, war-on-terror style—and this time they didn’t need flak jackets.

Best of all, we could bemoan our collective dependence on oil without too much risk.  But the most amazing thing about the collective outcry was its virtual insignificance in terms of how it affected our lives.  When the Brent Spar campaign captured the imagination of the European public in 1995, courtesy of a heroic Greenpeace occupation, Royal Dutch Shell found itself confronted with a broad consumer boycott.  (Esso, which had owned the other half of Brent Spar, somehow escaped public scrutiny.)  This time, all we had to do was repent our misdemeanor in public.  For the devout Catholic, which the present author is, it all sounded very familiar:  confess your sins, and then go on as before with a clean conscience.

Is it unfair to point out how well the event fitted our predispositions?  Of course, any definitive judgment as to the long-term significance of Deepwater Horizon is premature.  Maybe the event will indeed become a watershed, similar to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, or Love Canal.  But even then, the real test of our environmental sentiments is still pending.  Will we continue to worry about the hazards of the oil industry, now that the hole is closed?  Can we even use the interest in the Gulf region to look at related issues?  After all, there is no lack of environmental depredations.  Take, for instance, the highly polluted industrial region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as Cancer Alley or the Mississippi River-induced “dead zone” that miraculously disappeared on April 20.  During the spill, the Delta region was often portrayed as unspoiled nature, and it is high time to correct that cliché.

Do we have the momentum to move towards these pertinent issues?  Or are we content with having watched a hugely entertaining story:  one of the biggest companies in the world almost being wiped out by a defunct valve.  Hail to the Greek goddess of Nemesis!

The most essential lesson has yet to emerge from the plethora of reports:  we have seen a huge testament to our collective ignorance about the deep sea.  We know little about sea life below a thousand yards, and next to nothing about how oil affects it.  In fact, we do not even know where the oil has gone, as widely conflicting assessments in the last weeks have shown.  We have also seen that, once things no longer go as planned down there, human action in the deep sea looks ridiculously cumbersome.  Worse still, it seems that the usual response in these situations—namely, to invest in more research—will take a lot of time to provide results, and it is by all means certain that none of the global players will be so kind as to suspend their plans for deep sea resource exploitation in the meantime.  We have started to conquer the last frontier of our planet, and we literallydo not know what we are doing.

It takes a look at other issues to recognize the challenge that environmentalists are facing here.  On issues such as climate change and biodiversity, our collective knowledge has grown dramatically over recent decades, thus boosting the confidence of environmentalists.  The basic argument was that researchers have learned enough, and that it was time to act.  In our effort to conserve the deep sea, we will have to act without guidance from researchers:  we will have to protect a resource about which we are mostly in the dark.  So far, ignorance has customarily been an excuse for inaction—now we have to make it into a rationale for action.  Whatever we do about the deep sea, ignorance will be a constant companion in our conservation efforts, and we need to find a route towards responsible decisions while accepting the unknown—unless we want to look just as stupid the next time around.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/4/2010

It should be pointed out:

1. The spilled BP oil has almost completely evaporated, leaving little or no damage.
2. The vaunted "marshland acres" which were ruined numbered about 500, while another 15,000 such acres disappear every year through normal erosion.
3. The seafood has generally tested safe again in no time.
4. Some 42,000 other Gulf of Mexico underwater wells have not ruptured and leaked over several decades.
5. Enormous damage was done by media and green-freak hype, such as devastation to beachfront commerce in the Gulf and Florida by tourists who cancelled plans.
6. Enormous damage was done by Obama and his socialist government, using the BP spill as an excuse to shut down drilling in the Gulf, which not only has thrown tens of thousands out of work but also has raised the price of oil at the margin, moved rigs overseas and discouraged investment-- really terrible costs which are yet continuing.
7. The Gulf is now open for underwater drilling to Mexicans, Brazilians, Chinese and others not so fastidious as we are, while it remains closed to Americans, which is how Obama has chosen to fight the battle for U.S. energy independence.