Off the Northern coast of Alaska, in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, adjacent to the Alaska Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the Federal Government has given ocean oil drilling rights to Shell. Although these plans are now on hold because of the BP Gulf oil spill, if nothing is done more permanently, Shell will begin drilling in these pristine wild regions, perhaps as early as this summer. Shell has already carried out seismic studies and the government-issued permits will allow them to initially drill five exploratory wells. Anticipation is high that oil will be discovered, though the company still faces challenges from environmental groups. However, given the behavior of the courts who make these decisions, the chances are good that objections to drilling, based on environmental impact issues, will be dismissed, though the EPA is yet to weigh in on air quality projections related to the project. Our gluttony for oil continues and seemingly has no boundaries; few restrictions are now in place to limit access to drilling, even though the new off-shore drilling permits may be banned, at least temporarily by the states that are involved. The oil feeding frenzy established under GW Bush has given the oil giants a swagger that will be hard to contain. BP continues to press for exemptions from regulatory control, even in the face of the current Gulf oil disaster. Even a significant reduction in our own oil dependency will not lead to an abatement of drilling in ocean waters, as international companies like Shell and BP view the problem as a global issue, not an American one. Just as we cut down our own forests to provide Japan with pulp for paper (and buy it back from them–operating like a third-world country for their needs), so too will we continue to drill for oil in our own environment, even if we reach a point where we do not have to depend on foreign oil. The rising need for oil to feed the industrial expansions of China and India, will continue to pressure for new drilling even in the most sensitive areas of America. Extract all the extractable oil is and will be the mantra of the oil industry, unless we dramatically change our demand for oil and force our own views and values on the oil companies and their behavior. But, even the temporary interruption of deep ocean oil well drilling has the oil companies threatening our economy with job losses of several hundred thousand employees, if we don’t resume drilling as quickly as possible. It’s not as if they don’t have tools and influence.
While the Obama administration does not have the same “drill baby drill” attitude of its predecessor, there are no environmentalists within the administration, at least none with the passion of a Teddy Roosevelt or a Stewartl Udall; historically, it seems that spending time in the wondrous U.S. West was essential training experience to acquire a protective attitude about the environment–the physical wonders that your eyes report to you. The “I want to save this for my children and grand children syndrome,” is a mind state which you could acquire while seeing for the first time places like the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Yosemite Park, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, or any of the other places that are included in our fabulous national park system. Those searing experiences, faced with our inherent tendency to exploit and destroy the natural environment or privatize it, has historically served as the stimulus for environmentalism and site preservation. But, that was then and this is now. Today, whether it’s an oil spill or the threat of global climate change, we need a far more sophisticated and knowledgeable plan that can begin to sort out the “species interconnectedness;” this will require more knowledge of biology and environmental preservation, an emphasis which does not resonate well with the short-term problem solving that seemingly exists in the culture of the Obama cabinet meetings and our need for more oil resources. But, the biology we need to be studying can no longer be seen with the naked eye, for it is microscopic in size, yet fundamentally huge in its impact–it’s the ecosystem of our oceans and the threats that exist from oil spills, over fishing and salinity changes that might impair the fundamental biodiversity of the water and impact on the bottom of the food chain where life support is critical and the point at which it all begins.
So, how do you gain knowledge of species interconnectedness by watching birds drenched in oil and being treated with detergents? You don’t! Unless we are watching the event in the company of environmental and marine biologists and toxicologists. Yet, even these experts have limited knowledge of what the long-term impact of an oil spill will do to all the species in the ecosystem. Like global climate change, it’s too incomprehensible to imagine and, unlike global climate change, we don’t have computer models to help us figure out the real dangers of an oil spill of this magnitude. The historical reaction applies here: we can only shrug our shoulders and assume that eventually, all will be back to normal, that the ocean can and will deal with this problem, fixing it in ways that we don’t yet understand. After all, there is an equilibrium to nature, even when faced with increasing global temperatures or a slippery oily interface. We may not like the new steady-state, and it may be far less compatible with our expectations from the oceans of the world, but a new equilibrium point will be established and so far, we have shown ourselves to be completely impotent to facilitate one outcome over another. Ocean ecology is perhaps evolving in something less than a geological time scale. Something short enough that we will be able to gauge some of the impact of the Gulf oil spill, but we will be unable to do anything about it. By the time we recognize what happened, and a validate that a new balance point has been established, we will not be able to return to the old one, no matter how much we miss it, or what we do to restore it. New counter forces will be in place to preserve the new point of equilibrium and oppose any efforts we make to restore an older point of balance.
Krill are tiny crustaceans found in all oceans. They feed on phytoplankton and serve as one of the essential elements at the bottom of the food chain. Somehow we expect that these essential organisms will be unaffected and that no large mammals will start washing up on shore because of starvation. Should that ever begin to happen, the human population would of course already be stressed, yet probably knowledgeable about the unfavorable imbalances within our oceans and its implications for planetary balance. What do we really know about the influence of oil on the ecology of a region? Did we lose species in the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the one in Santa Barbara? In the case of the Exxon Valdez, the salmon and herring fishing industry in the region collapsed. Slowly the salmon came back, but the herring never returned. One mayor in the region committed suicide, apparently related to his despair over the oil spill and its impact on the local economy. Have we done enough studies to understand the changes in the ecosystem that invariably happen with a major oil spill? Each major spill is probably very unique, given the variance in species and habitat of the surrounding region and relative size of the ocean volume involved. We know that for each spill, the lives of commercial fishermen will be permanently changed and their chances of getting a fair compensation for their lost livelihood is about zero, as it will take many years to resolve the impending issues and suits within our heavily biased court system, one that rewards and protects big business and allows lower income recipients of the calamity to serve as mere cannon fodder. According to some studies, significant oil residue remains in Prince Williams Sound where the Exxon Valdez spilled oil onto 1200 miles of beach, killing thousands of animals. In some areas, oil was three feet thick. Current estimates are that it will take decades more or even centuries more for the oil to fully dissipate from the region: Litigation against Exxon continues.
If you’re wondering about long-term damage liability, to compensate for lost jobs and continued clean up operations, here is what happened on that issue with Exxon (From Democracy Now): “In 1994, an Alaskan jury found Exxon responsible and ruled the company should pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 33,000 plaintiffs. Exxon appealed. In 2006, the 9th US Circuit Court cut the award of punitive damages in half to $2.5 billion. Then, in a 5-to-3 ruling last June, the Supreme Court cut the amount of punitive damages again and ordered Exxon Mobil to pay just $500 million in punitive damages, one-tenth of the original jury’s ruling. That equates to about four days of Exxon Mobil’s net profits.” You can see how favorably the courts treat these jury-determined settlement costs. For Exxon, it’s just a few days of profits and they have more lawyers to throw at these issues than almost anyone else on the planet, unless it’s our own government that operates by bringing criminal charges.
This country is badly in need of re-implementing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) and staffing the organization with field and marine biologists who can participate in efforts to understand oil spills and the devastation they generate on species and their interconnectedness. I have commented on this acute need in a previous posting. We only see the damage at the top, on the shores, in the form of dead and oily birds, turtles and a few mammals. We don’t have the capacity to see the impact on the ecosystem beneath or the effects of the new menace–the large subsurface oil plumes riding at mid-level depths in the ocean; the oil companies would like to keep it that way. For them too much knowledge is a bad thing. They would like us to remember that the oil platforms they put down become havens for fish to collect in the service of sport fisherman. Isn’t that a good enough benefit?
The lack of a strong, passionate environmental presence sitting at the Obama cabinet meetings has made it difficult for our urban president to find his voice on the Gulf oil spill. Someone needs to drive home the environmental disaster to Obama in such a way that an urbanite, who seems to have learned nothing about species interdependency and the potentially disastrous magnitude of the BP spill, can quickly get up to speed talking about phytoplankton, krill and other members of the Zooplankton group. He very badly needs to go out on a boat with a group of marine biologists and toxicologists, who can explain to him the dimensions of the problem and how seeing a bunch of oily birds, while visibly shocking, coupled to the regular summary of the spill on CNN (mostly consumed by showing the undersea footage of the oil leak bulging out if the drill rupture), is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg for the local fishing economy and the long-term health of the Gulf ecosystem. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a lawyer by training, doesn’t quite have the sophistication or experience to recruit the kind of scientific expertise and visibility required to assure the public that some level of scientific accumen is being applied to this disaster. In keeping with the corporate motif of the new world order, science and scientists don’t speak for BP, except through the corporate elites of the company, who know virtually nothing about biology; their objective is solely the public relations message and BP’s liability. Yet, biology is what this spill is all about and it is where the effort must be focused with education, research and a good dose of corporate honesty. School children in the region could be enlisted in the research effort to gather samples, make measurements, much like school children in Minnesota discovered and studied three-legged frogs. How refreshing it would be to see and hear the BP CEO tell us that BP has no idea what the long-term damage of this spill will do to the environment, but that they will begin to fund significant grants for the region to be studied as the long-term laboratory environment they helped to create. At least that would be a starting point from which we could launch some serious research. Yet, we have to admit that the problem cannot be researched in the sense that no long-term projections can be made because we do not understand, nor do we have models for comprehending the impact we are witnessing from this spill. The new oil plumes beneath the surface represent a form of oil we have not encountered before and we don’t even know the cause. But, they potentially represent vast dead zones due to the lack of oxygen that has been reported near these sites.
Hurricane season is nearly underway and each day we experience continued oil gushing from the well, we run the risk of a single hurricane serving like an ocean Hobart machine, circulating and mixing the oil and water until it reaches the loop current and begins marching up the Atlantic coast. The city of Fort Lauderdale, a major oil import region, has begun discussions on the impact of Gulf oil that might find its way moving into the Atlantic coast, an event that could devastate the tourist economy of the region, to say nothing of the damage already done to the seafood industry that serves Florida and much of the country.
But, back to Alaska. If a spill should occur anything close to what we are seeing in the Gulf, once drilling in the Beaufort and and Chukchi seas begins, it will be impossible to devote anything significant to the cleanup operation, at least not for many months. Even Shell executives have agreed that “there is no good way to clean up oil from a spill in broken sea ice.” The government has acknowledged that a major spill in the Arctic waters of the area could have devastating consequences in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters and could be difficult to clean up. How about impossible? However, they concluded that a large oil leak was “too remote and speculative an occurrence” to warrant analysis. Well that was then (December, 2009) and this is now. The permit for drilling in the Arctic sea has been suspended, but that suspension could be lifted soon enough to see drilling this summer. Should a spill occur in these cold waters, the nearest Coast Guard facility is a 1,000 miles away, the nearest cleanup vessels and equipment are too few and at least 100 miles away, and the nearest airport where major supplies could be transported is Seattle, a few thousand miles away.
The Alaska waters where drilling permits have been issued, are vastly colder than the Gulf and any oil spill will take far longer to dissipate, no matter what the mechanism, be it biochemical breakdown or micelle formation and dispersal. For another, during the winter, weather patterns often include 65 mile per hour winds at temperatures in the -40 degree range, making rescue operations for any troubled rig virtually impossible. In the summer, the area serves as a huge breeding center for multiple species of birds that migrate from six different continents, including all of the other 49 states. Huge herds of caribou congregate on the Arctic coastal plane and Beluga whales have their calving season in these waters. To become more familiar with the region, check out Subhankar Banerjee‘s interview on TomDispatch.
Several years ago, GW Bush wanted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. Fortunately, environmental organizations defeated this idea. But that took place when every environmental organization, everyone interested in sane ecological management, knew they had a hostile President to deal with and opposition to his leadership on almost every front was widespread and passionate. Today, in the current climate, with a Democratic President, the environmental movement has been much more subdued and has become more passive about the ocean drilling plans of Shell Oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, particularly since Obama announced permits for that drilling operation a few weeks before the BP Gulf oil spill. Perhaps the Gulf oil spill will serve to re-invigorate the environmental opposition to drilling and help the country move rapidly to a state of reduced oil dependency. It is not clear to anyone that the drilling demands of the international oil giants is really necessary. You might want to read Michael Klare on this important topic. So far however, Obama has shown himself to be just as much of an oil man as we had with GW Bush. The Minerals Management Service, the government oversight function for the oil companies has for years been deeply corrupted. The recent shake-up in the government oversight structure may improve this relationship, but Obama has a lot of repair work to do if these oil companies are ever going to conform to the needs of our society, rather than their own needs of high profits and reckless drilling practices, with little financial risk to their bottom line. Maybe this will be his wake-up call for the environment and Big Oil.
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