Oil-stained spill responders in white head-to-toe hazmat suits working to gather dead wildlife from the Gulf Coast marshes. What appears to be a resting dragonfly in a beautiful photograph is actually a creature glued to the leaf on which it sits by oil. A sinking seabird, covered in gooey black tar and pecking frantically at the hull of a boat, tries repeatedly but without success to get in, before disappearing forever behind the bow of the vessel. These images tell the tragic story: we’ve made the natural environment upon which we depend for sustenance deadly for our kind and for all living things.
When Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts forced BP to make public the live video feed of the poisonous oil plume gushing from the seafloor, he performed a profound public service. Most cases of accidental environmental contamination remain invisible to our human senses, but this mushrooming oil cloud is now being seen every day, and the imagery sends us a visceral message: offshore drilling is so dangerous that we can cause accidents that are too big to clean up, and that we can inadvertently make messes we cannot even shut off. It’s not just deepwater drilling that is dangerous. The ten-week rig blowout which fouled 8,000 square miles of Australia’s Timor Sea just last fall originated in shallow water. The immense scope of the risks we see associated with offshore drilling clearly outweigh the potential benefits at any water depth.
The mesmerizing video feed of the ongoing Gulf Coast blowout is now omnipresent. Whenever President Obama stands before the cameras to explain his administration’s handling of this spill, continuous live footage of the leaking wellhead shares the screen on nearly every channel. It is not hard to interpret this video as the fleeting lifeblood of our marine environment, flowing away with what will, before this spill is over, likely be the viability of entire marine and avian populations. The economic survival of several states is also in the balance, depending as it always has on clean coastal waters, but where the fishing and tourism industries are now at risk along with the rich cultural heritage that has historically characterized America’s Gulf Coast.
The image of the spilled oil pushing life aside as it enters the sea is deeply disturbing, but the world needs to view this if we are to learn the hard lessons of change from this cataclysmic event. Public opinion polling is already starting to shift away from the thoughtless “Drill Baby Drill” mentality of only a few short weeks ago, toward a more reasoned approach that could be a harbinger of careful stewardship of our oceans and our living planet.
BP’s touted “top kill” effort has sadly failed, a new giant soda straw scheme is said to be in the works, and we are advised to “wait and see” if the new plan to diminish the flow can work. Meanwhile, the federal agencies of jurisdiction have finally admitted that the Gulf Coast slick is now the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Undoubtedly, future textbooks will chronicle our planet’s major environmental disasters, listing this massive spill, along with the 1969 Santa Barbara blowout, the 1979 Ixtoc blowout, the 2009 Timor Sea blowout, Love Canal, Bhopal, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as among the more compelling wake-up calls for human society.
Already, the Gulf oil disaster has forced the Obama administration to grant a one-year delay of new exploratory drilling that it had previously approved for the fragile Arctic Ocean this summer, resulting in what amounts to a temporary reprieve for that dangerous activity until 2011. A similar drilling plan for the coast of Virginia has also been temporarily suspended, and a six-month freeze has been put in place on any new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
So with a political “pause” on expansion of offshore drilling risks temporarily in place, it is now absolutely critical to convince the American public and our elected decision-makers to revisit their blind fascination with offshore drilling in sensitive waters. If the messages exemplified by the pictures of our dying Gulf Coast wildlife tell us anything, it’s that we do not want this to happen ever again: not on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, not near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, not in California’s Santa Monica Bay or on the Mendocino Coast, and not in Alaska’s Bristol Bay nor in the Arctic Ocean. Not next year, not ever. Bringing that unequivocal message to Capitol Hill will take diligence and persistence, but the congressional offices are already consumed with this issue, and their focus won’t be going away soon. The images of the Gulf Coast spill and its aftermath are already burned into the collective consciousness.
It‘s still too early to discern exactly what these dramatic lessons will indicate in terms of meaningful legislative outcomes in Congress, but it is safe to say that laws and agencies will be changed forever, and that environmental priorities will inevitably take the place of carelessness. As long as we don’t forget the imagery of the wildlife, fail to overlook the implications of our lost natural heritage or ignore the poisoned legacy that all of this pollution is leaving for our grandchildren, some constructive path into the future may yet come from this disaster.
Society has learned the hard way from past offshore rig spills that these kinds of seafloor well blowouts have customarily taken a long time to shut in. We are learning now here in America, as the people of Nigeria, Ecuador, Australia and other parts of the world have learned before us, that the multinational oil industry often tears a permanent hole in the fabric of our environment, and that people and wildlife will suffer as a result.
Please join us on our unstoppable quest for a saner, safer, cleaner energy grid and a more efficient transportation system, one not dependent upon blatant waste and the wholesale sacrifice of natural systems upon which our lives depend.
Right now, the Obama administration is still proceeding with new plans to broaden offshore drilling along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware southward to Florida’s east coast as near as only three miles from shore, and also along Florida’s Gulf Coast and in sensitive Alaskan waters. The process for preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this expanded Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012–2017 remains open for public comment only until June 30, 2010. You can comment on these expanded offshore drilling proposals for fragile coastal areas by visiting: ocs5yeareis.anl.gov and then clicking on the “public comment form” in the box on the upper right of the web page to submit your own thoughts on the issues that ought to be considered in an EIS.
And on June 26, you can join other citizens and business owners from all over the U.S. as we participate in a nationwide public statement in support of clean beaches and healthy coastal waters, as part of the “Hands Across the Sand” events being held almost everywhere. To learn about the event nearest your home, see: http://www.handsacrossthesand.com/
For more of the images that tell the story of the Gulf Coast incident, see: http://www.defendersblog.org/2010/05/photographer-bill-campbells-dispatches-from-the-field/