Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Next?: Gulf oil spill legacy signals need for new energy paradigm

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. I awoke this morning to televised news reports of tar balls being found in the Florida Keys. While not totally unique to this area, these tar balls will be sent to labs for analysis to determine whether they are from the current Gulf oil spill. If so, it represents evidence of the oil reaching the Loop Current that could ultimately deposit oil as far away as the Atlantic Ocean coastline off the Carolinas.

Several scientific and tracking organizations, like SkyTruth, have reported that the oil spill will enter the Loop Current - which runs from the mid-Gulf, around Florida and up the east coast - if not now, then eventually. This current not only adds another later of complexity to the catastrophe in the Gulf, but it also reminds us of the consequences of our age-old attitude regarding the oceans: that it is a vast open resource - a source of limitless bounty and capable of handling endless abuse. Such thinking is total folly.

To the media and much of the general public, the biggest concern is what we can see: oil splashing up on the shore, oozing into the marshlands, and coating shorebirds - these are the visible signs that something has invaded our backyard. Unfortunately, if these events do not occur, or at least not in great magnitude, then we have a tendency to think we dodged the bullet.

Initially, weather played a role in delaying or keeping the oil at bay, far offshore. And the interplay of the onshore/offshore winds even got some people to wonder where the oil was or whether the spill was as disastrous as claimed. But there is close to 6 million gallons of oil (a conservative figure; other estimates run into the hundreds of thousands) that has leaked into the Gulf and it has to be somewhere.

I have to admit, when I first heard about the Loop Current, I imagined a current hugging the coastline around the eastern Gulf of Mexico. As it turns out, the current starts in the middle of the Gulf - behind, or south, of the site of the spill - then proceeds towards the tip of Florida, where it whips around the tip then stays close to the east coast shoreline. So, if we breathe a sigh of relief that the oil has, to a large extant, stayed offshore, it's ironic that any movement away from shore means it is heading directly into the current to spread an even wider and unexpected path of pollution.

There have been some reports of a large swath of oil moving below the surface, relatively undetected. These reports have been questioned by some government agencies and so further investigation continues, but it would not surprise me if there is a political media person somewhere saying that the longer the oil goes missing, the better. Again, out of sight, out of mind.

But there's no escaping the fact that we are talking about millions of gallons of oil.
  • Oil that has settled on the bottom? That would be disastrous for marine life as the oil would work its way into the fundamental base food chain that impacts a variety of shellfish and other bottom feeders.
  • Oil that has dissipated or spread itself into a thin micro-globular layer? There it can be ingested by plankton, spread across sensitive coral, or enter the atmosphere through evaporation.
  • Or how about broken down by hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant (a toxic brew unto itself) to be eaten by hungry microbes which, in turn, would consume oxygen in the process, thereby degrading water quality.
There is no getting around it - whether we can see it or not, oil and water (in this case, sea water) don't mix.

My growing concern and question is: What will the decision-makers learn from this? What will the oil companies? And perhaps most importantly, what will we learn from this?

If anything, the Gulf oil spill highlights the complexity and multi-disastrous impact such an event can have on marine ecosystems near and far. What will it take to finally make definitive steps away from fossil fuel - our national, in fact global, addiction? As a society we are definitely in the throes of an addiction. We know that it is bad for us, we know that it harms the environment, we know that it produces lopsided economic dependencies - but we do nothing of any lasting consequence. That's textbook addiction.

Hopefully, British Petroleum will contain and stop the oil leak soon. We will have to live with degraded marine environments throughout the Gulf and perhaps along the southeast coast. And seafood commercial fisheries will be cut off from the stocks that they have plundered for years to meet demand. Tourism will suffer and seafood prices will rise. Gasoline prices too, perhaps.

But what will we do next? It has been said that the drug addict, regardless of his or her past bad experiences, must decide that they have now hit rock bottom before they can change their lives. Are we there yet?

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