Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crude Awakening

It would be a monumental understatement to say that the environmental tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is of Biblical proportions. Quite unlike the Great Flood, which supposedly washed the land clean of sin, the unstaunched flow of oil marks us all as complicit in our relentless reliance on petroleum.

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded on April 20th, killing 11 workers and injuring 17, British Petroleum claimed the environmental impact to the Gulf would be "minimal at most." They also claimed the escaping oil was not more than 2,000 gallons a day, which in itself sounds pretty alarming.

If you live long enough, as I have, you'll witness any number of man-made disasters whose consequences are initially downplayed when your gut tells you otherwise: the Agent Orange contamination of our own troops in Viet Nam, the radioactive explosions at Chernoble and Three Mile Island, and even the attack on the World Trade Center, which still claims the lives of emergency and police personnel exposed to asbestos and other carcinogens following the collapse of the towers. And let's not forget the worst industrial tragedy prior to this, the Union Carbide gas disaster that killed at least 15,000 people in India in 1984, and which still contaminates the groundwater millions of people there rely on today. The story is always the same: a PR flack delivers a tight-lipped reassurance that there's nothing to worry about, and then the grim facts uncoil. In the case of the spill -- which isn't a spill at all, since a "spill" would be an incident with a starting point and an end, and, consequently, a point where a realistic clean-up program could begin -- the admitted volume of the release grew each day, until finally BP settled on the figure of 600,000 gallons, or 20,000 barrels, of oil a day -- for 85 days so far. For all we know it may be more.

Though the horrifying event has held its place in the daily news, it still seems more like a massive unpleasantness we'd like to ignore, like a drunk at a party who's vomited on the carpet. I don't pretend to know anything about the subject of environmental disaster, but here are some questions that come to mind -- questions that I haven't heard anyone try to address:

1. What's the real problem with capping the well?
I understand that the opening of the well is on the ocean floor, a mile beneath the surface, and that working under so much water pressure is incredibly difficult, requiring robotic equipment. But I've also heard that the pipe is ruptured beneath the ocean floor, meaning that a cap won't staunch the flow of oil because the source of the problem isn't reachable.

2. What's happening with the methane?
One of the most prominent features of any oil well I've ever seen, at land or sea, is a huge torch of flame burning off the methane and other gaseous by-products that accompany oil extraction. Is the methane from this well simply bubbling up through the water into the atmosphere? How does this contribute to greenhouse gasses, and does it present a danger to sea life and humans living along the Gulf?

3. Isn't this different from a tanker spill?
The Exxon Valdez incident involved processed oil product. This oil is crude, unprocessed raw petroleum, mixed with varying degrees of other substances. How does this affect its dispersement, and our ability to remove it from our beaches and waterways?

4. How does it affect bird migration?
A huge percentage of migrating birds stop in the Gulf and its many bayous and mangrove swamps on their way south each year. How many of them will never return once they stumble unknowingly into the thick gooey morass that awaits them this year? Will this be the "Silent Spring" Rachel Carson warned us about nearly forty years ago?

5. Won't the oil end up pretty much everywhere worldwide?
At the beginning of the disaster, the authorities seemed to feel that the event was local in nature, with oil and tar likely to wash up on the shores of Louisiana alone. So far it's expanded to affect all five Gulf states, and it's still spreading out from its source. Won't the oil find its way around Florida and enter the Gulf Stream, taking it up the Eastern Seaboard and toward Northern Europe?

There are other questions as well that are yet to be answered, questions about the vulnerability of the oceanic life cycle, and whether the oil -- or the highly-toxic dispersant chemicals -- as some people have reported, is somehow making its way into the evaporation cycle and falling as contaminated rain throughout the Southeast. The simple fact is that an incident that would have had sickeningly far-reaching effects after its first week is now nearing the end of its third month, and I can't see photos of volunteers attempting to clean the beaches without feeling how futile it is, since the oil will just keep coming. With so much talk recently about our planet's sustainability having reached a tipping point, it's easy to believe that we may have at last passed that point of no return.

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