Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Growing up on the Gulf Coast at the Louisiana-Texas border makes it difficult to consider the BP oil disaster unemotionally. Nevertheless, I will try to sort the facts from my emotional response, and acknowledge my personal and financial interest in the damage this oil gush is causing on the Gulf coast. But if you’re not sickened by the sight of oil sludge-saturated sea life, then this column will not be worth your time to read.
I lived in Port Arthur beginning in 1948 and left to attend college in central Texas in 1962. I returned to the coast many times in the intervening years and began doing serious and regular salt-water fishing there in the mid-80s. I (along with my wife) own a beach house with six other friends near where the Colorado River joins the Gulf of Mexico. Now when I fish, it is in the estuaries, bayous, and bays in that area, and in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico about 60 miles southwest of Galveston Island.
We share the same marshland wildlife that people on the Louisiana coast enjoy. Brown Pelicans, Sea Gulls, migrating ducks, Whooping Cranes, Bald Eagles, owls, countless other sea birds, Red Fish, Black Drum, Spotted Sea Trout, Flounder, Dolphin, Pompano, Whiting, assorted shark species, crabs, shrimp, bivalves and mollusks, turtles and many other birds, fish, and mammals that thrive along the Gulf Coast. While our livelihoods don’t depend on the coastal ecosystem, our love for the abundant life there is so woven into our lives that we can’t imagine what we will experience if it is diminished permanently.
Oil-blackened marshes and sea birds and other sea life gasping for oxygen make clear that we are witnessing a vast destruction of life. While BP will pay for the dead workers killed by the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, it will not pay for the suffering of the sea birds and sea life, nor does this cold, calculating, greed-driven corporation care. Its view is that the earth and water are there for its exploitation and views to the contrary can be damned.
The people along the Louisiana coast are learning firsthand what we hoped never to experience. The loss of a significant amount of wildlife can cause grief as profound as the loss of a family member. As a child, I remember when two whales beached themselves on the coast between Galveston and Sabine Pass. Some wildlife researchers put tents around them and performed necropsies to determine why they died. They let people into the tents to examine the whales up close. It was the first and last time I touched a whale. From my young perspective, they were several times bigger than an elephant, though I’m sure that they were closer to an even match with a full-grown pachyderm. I was in awe of the large creatures. We walked around their carcasses with reverence.
Before seining by hand with 200-foot nets was prohibited, such activity was great fun for family and friends on holiday weekends. An uncle of mine would always take hold of the lead pole and walk into the Gulf until it was so deep he had to bob up and down using the pole to keep his head mostly above water. He would then lead the procession of helpers spread out along the seine in an arc and start heading back into the shore. It took everyone–maybe 20-25 people–to pull the net ashore to learn what we had caught. There was always much sea life in the net, including some that no one in the group could identify, though some guessed at the name of this creature and that one. The fish we cleaned and cooked for supper and we helped the crabs and other creatures we weren’t afraid to touch go back into the water.
That life is no more because of overfishing, which led to outlawing seining in the 70s. But that government rule and other conservation measures aimed at saving numerous species have saved the Spotted Sea Trout, Red Fish, Black Drum, Flounder, Brown Pelican, sea turtles and other sea life from extinction. At least that was the situation before the BP oil disaster. We don’t yet know what effects it will have, but we are beginning to get an idea. The one lesson I have already taken from the disaster is that BP is incapable of restoring the sea and shore life that have been killed and will continue to be killed for decades as a result of BP’s negligence and greed.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez leaked about 22.2 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska, despoiling some 1230 miles of coastline and killing as many as 250,000 birds and sea mammals immediately, along with billions of fish eggs for many years and contributing to reproductive failures in other species for several generations. In comparison, it is believed that the BP gusher has yielded about 20,000 barrels a day by conservative government estimates. This is the equivalent of 840,000 gallons a day times 56 days (as of June 14), which totals to a conservative estimate of over 47 million gallons, more than twice what the Exxon Valdez spilled, and there is no end in sight. It is too early to know how many miles of coastline could be affected, but the State of Florida (which appears vulnerable) has just over 1230 miles of coastline, and about 120 miles of Louisiana coast already has been affected.
Scientists estimate that it will take mussel beds fouled by the oil leak in Alaska at least 30 years to substantially, but not fully, recover from the Exxon Valdez disaster, which was caused by the failure of Exxon to repair an expensive, but highly effective, sonar system that would have allowed the third mate (who was at the helm at the time of the disaster) to guide the ship safely through Prince William Sound. No one knows how long it will take the oyster beds along the Gulf coast to recover.
As reported by David Biello in the Scientific American: “More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez foundered off the coast of Alaska, puddles of oil can still be found in Prince William Sound. Nearly 25 years after a storage tank ruptured, spilling oil into the mangrove swamps and coral reefs of Bahia Las Minas in Panama, oil slicks can still be found on the water. And more than 40 years after the barge Florida grounded off Cape Cod, dumping fuel oil, the muck beneath the marsh grasses still smells like a gas station.”
Biello reports also that Texas A & M University marine biologist Thomas Shirley has found that there are nearly 16,000 species of plants and animals in the Gulf of Mexico, not counting microbes. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine biologist Jane Lubchenko pointed to another aspect of the release of oil: “There are a diversity of types of habitats in the Gulf, many very important in support of a variety of wildlife and fisheries…. Many are at risk of being affected… .” With these facts in mind, the situation in the Gulf of Mexico looks absolutely dismal.
Already, conservative and Libertarian voices are advancing the notion that BP has no responsibility for this environmental debacle. Rand Paul said, “I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.” David Brooks, the Barack Obama of conservative confabulation, has attributed the cause of the Gulf gusher to the complexity of the technology that exceeds the ability of humans to cope. To these political voices, no one can be held responsible for such events. They prefer to ignore BP’s long history of recklessness toward its employees and the environment, and its disdain for and venality toward those employees who report safety concerns. Would that we all could get off so easily for our transgressions.
The people and institutions at the top of the economic food chain generally have limits on their accountability, such as the $75 million plus cleanup costs limitation on damages for oil companies who spill oil into coastal waters, which was enacted by a unanimous Congress in 1990 (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990). But those at the bottom of the economic food chain are often dealt with harshly, out of all proportion to their wrongdoing. Just walk into any criminal courtroom in the country to confirm this.
Recently, Dr. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist and policy researcher at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, and Mary Turnipseed, a graduate student in Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, wrote about a legal doctrine known as the Public Trust Doctrine: “…the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD), established in the earliest days of this country and since expanded through courts and state and federal legislative bodies, provides the power — and the legal responsibility — to manage public trust assets in a comprehensive fashion that balances competing short and long-term needs of all American citizens. It’s a mandate that if it had been implemented properly would likely have prevented the current catastrophe, and if applied to the full extent of its powers could prevent similar disasters in the future.”
Sagarin and Turnipseed, writing for McClatchy News, concluded: “… the Deepwater Horizon spill is a catastrophic failure to protect the public trust. Millions of animals; a $2.5 billion fishing industry and a $3 billion tourism sector imperiled; the toxic legacy of dispersants; and up to 17,000 barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf every day, all are a shocking blow to the value of the coastal and marine resources that are a vital part of our nation’s public trust.” BP understands nothing about the public trust.
The world’s recoverable oil reserves are about 1200 billion barrels. North America accounts for about 6% to 9% of those reserves, and the Gulf of Mexico only a portion of that. Even if we produced all the oil that is currently producible in the United states, it would last from 3 years to 9 years, depending on which expert you believe. Destroying our coastal environment is not worth a few years of oil production, whether it is 3 years or 9, or 19 if the experts are way off in their estimates. The facts are that we don’t have to drill in the Gulf of Mexico to get the oil we need until green alternatives become both feasible and abundant.
Among Americans who depend on the Gulf coast and its waters for recreation, living, and work, few believe that BP should not have to pay for the damage it has done and will continue to do, for generations, to the Gulf of Mexico and its environs from this one incident. Ruining the natural world for oil is not a good tradeoff for Americans. The lesson we should take from BP’s negligence is that green energy should become the “race to the moon” of the second decade of the 21st century. If the government could be the stimulus for winning that race in the 1960s, it can be the stimulus for winning this new race to produce feasible and affordable alternative energy before the end of the next decade. The government, along with entrepreneurs and creative scientists and technologists, can assure that we can continue to lead good lives while we protect the natural world from manmade disasters.
It is time to accept that offshore drilling is as much a certain killer of the creatures in the sea as is overfishing. I agree with the conservative and Libertarian BP apologists on one point–it is inevitable that such disasters will occur again as long as we allow offshore drilling. We need the same no-nonsense rules that protect specific species to protect all of the sea life in the Gulf of Mexico. Undoubtedly, the oil companies have escaped effective regulation because of their political power, while fishermen and shrimpers have been forced to accept regulations needed to conserve sea life. Now, we must force our politicians to accept the indisputable reality that oil production in the Gulf is inevitably destructive of the environment.
An end to offshore drilling is the most effective action we can take to protect our coastal waters and environs to ensure that we are taking care of a resource that provides food, recreation, and a way of life for many Americans. And it is equally important to protect all life, whether human or other species, because we are all related, and it is the responsible thing to do.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print