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Another oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – Why?

May 3, 2010 began with my outrage at the oil spill in the Timor Sea. That spill that started with a blowout close to the seabed on August 21st 2009 and lasted for 10 long weeks, as well as revealing the depth of denial that Governments will run to keep powerful industry happy.BPDeepwaterHorizon-oil-rig-fire_USCoastGuard

The Timor spill was by no means the first, and this Gulf of Mexico spill is  unlikely to be the last.

In fact it has been a busy year for the oil and gas industry in terms of its impacts on our marine environment. Since February 2009 there has been a spill in Ireland, another in Norway, two in the USA and three in Australia. Each has received intense media focus while the oil was flowing, then seemed to mysteriously fade from public and policy makers minds once stopped. I often wonder why? The drama isn’t over at that point.

The latest in the recent snapshot of spills started on April 20th 2010 with oil gushing from the well where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank and is now spreading through the Gulf of Mexico. Already this tragedy has taken the lives of eleven crew.

Today reports are telling us that, along a 50-kilometre stretch of Mississippi, at least 20 sea turtles have been found dead. US wildlife officials are all too quick to state that they don’t know if the turtles died as result of the oil, but shouldn’t we be past the point of needing iron clad certainty?

In the past 24 hours I have had at least a dozen people ask me, with dismay written on their faces, ‘what is going on?’ One person has emailed me with understandable frustration at the lack of action. He is rightly angry that no-one seems to connect the dots. Another, I listened to while we sat in the sunshine at a Farmers’ Market near my home. With tears in her eyes she said quietly, almost prophetically “we will never learn”.

Like each of them I wonder, honestly, why this is happening again?

Each of the spill events in the past 18 months has been devastating; the impacts will be profoundly felt by each ecosystem, the wildlife and humans that rely upon it for decades to come.

Yet, not one law or regulation has changed in Australia or the United States in response. In fact, both countries continue to run headlong towards an offshore petrol future with Australia bizarrely releasing acreages across the same areas it is currently considering for marine protected areas. The Obama administration has apparently taken a tougher line on oil exploration this week, announcing that no new areas for offshore drilling would be allowed until a review of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the resulting spill has been completed. Chances are this resolve with be short-lived, and if they follow Australia’s lead, the review probably wont look at the impacts anyway, as I have written previously on this blog.

BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay has been quoted by Reuters as saying that stopping the leak is like performing “open heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark with robot-controlled submarines”. It’s as if by achieving this significant feat that they are absolved on the wrong in the first place. No-one, it seems, is prepared to ask him why weren’t greater safety nets built in?  This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, the situation is unnervingly similar to the blowout the Timor Sea a short nine months ago. Why then, didn’t BP, and every other company currently drilling immediately change their risk contingency measures to ensure if an accident happened the impact would be as small as possible?

It’s ironic and rather perverse that the measure of spill impact seems to centre on how big the spill is in relation to other famous spills. Media seems focused on comparing the litres of oil released, rather than asking the more pertinent questions about the impact, and why spill containment measures so woefully inadequate for the task.

My point is that we know that wildlife dies and the impacts last for decades, almost despite the size. We know that fishing livelihoods are lost with small spills too. Why then do we allow such risks to continue? Why don’t we question this harder?

John Besh is calling this spill in the Gulf of Mexico Black Death for the fishing industry. He’s made the insightful point:

… the [US] Marine Corps … can strike heavily anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Why aren’t we using that kind of enthusiasm and drive to protect our coastland? I don’t think half the people in Washington have a clue of what’s at stake. This is a fragile ecosystem that has had to survive so much already.

… We can’t keep waiting for disasters to happen when we know how to prevent them in the first place. Yes, we’ve had luck with offshore drilling. But it’s just like Wall Street: we can’t expect companies to police themselves.

We know that some ecosystems never recover, yet nothing changes. Industries do not invest in contingency plans and risk events continue to be overlooked by Governments around the world.

So I am going to open the mic to you.

  • Is the risk worth the cost?
  • Should the oil and gas industry be tighter regulated?
  • And, the nugget of the moment, should our dependency on oil and gas come to an end?

I’d really like to hear your thoughts, becasue on this one, I am left asking ‘why?’

Cross posted on From the Front Line

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