The Gulf of Mexico oil calamity—a blessing in disguise?

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Many have thought that action on climate change may have to await a calamity. The question is whether the Gulf oil spill will change the course of history by encouraging the USA to serious development of alternative energy.

Furthermore will this spill draw attention to the appalling environmental and health impact of Big Oil around the world and make it more difficult to exploit poor legislation in developing countries and the political process in the rich countries.

History suggests business will be as usual.   In 1989 the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons was the worst in American history. It damaged 1,300 miles of shoreline, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of people in the region and killing hundreds of thousands of birds and marine animals. Despite the clean-up, oil remains on beaches and the ecology has not recovered. The herring fishing was lost completely. After 20 years in court $500m damages was awarded, a pittance.

The Gulf of Mexico spill is not in the same league, it is massive and continuing. “Clean –up” is a misnomer for there will be an impact on the environment and fishing for decades and some impact will be permanent. But today instead of George H W Bush, an oil man, we have President Obama who has already extracted $20 billion reparation from BP. Attitudes may now change

The President speaking from the oval office said

So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.  But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk.  After all, oil is a finite resource.  We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves.  And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean -- because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.
 
For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered.  For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.  And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
 
The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight.  Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America.  Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil.  And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.
We cannot consign our children to this future.  The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.  Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

Why should we be interested in these events? - simply because they are public health issues. The Gulf spill focuses on the record of the oil industry and invites reform.

In a letter to Mr. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive Officer of BP from Henry A. Waxman and Bart Stupak, Chairmen, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House of Representatives, it is said “The Committee's investigation is raising serious questions about the decisions made by BP in the days and hours before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. On April 15, five days before the explosion, BP's drilling engineer called Macondo a "nightmare well." In spite of the well's difficulties, BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure. In several instances, these decisions appear to violate industry guidelines and were made despite warnings from BP's own personnel and its contractors. In effect, it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk”.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill with the CEOs of Big Oil, all companies hypocritically bagged BP for their incompetence, saying they would never make such mistakes. Yet all these companies have appalling records.

What is  the record of Big Oil?

John Vidal notes in the Observer (UK)
“If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. “This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.”
“The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily. The situation is now worse than it was 30 years ago. Nothing is changing. When I see the efforts that are being made in the US I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards. What they do in the US or in Europe is very different.”

“We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the US,” said Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International. “But in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people’s livelihood and environments. The Gulf spill can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening daily in the oilfields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
“This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper,” he said.

The New York Times has commented — Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.  Click here
  
Shell and Exxon are heavily involved in Nigeria.

But accountability may be coming. DEA members will recall that Shell settled out of court over the death of Nigerian activist Saro-wiwa. Earlier this year Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has described the ruling of a court at The Hague, Netherlands affirming its jurisdiction over the operations of Shell Nigeria as the first victory of an oppressed people over an unrepentant corporation.

Four Nigerian farmers from Oruma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo communities had initiated the lawsuit together with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, claiming their communities have been severely polluted by oil that flowed from a leaking Shell pipeline into farmlands and fish ponds.

The pollution in Nigeria is massive with huge loss of land and ill health. So poor is Shell’s record that the Nigerian government had to remind the company to respect international standards when it does get around to cleaning up a fraction of over 2,400 spill sites in the Delta.

In dozens of countries the story is similar. Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for three decades in a vast swath of Ecuador’s northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Colombia. Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery.

Recently East Timor has experienced the problem of alleged technical failure causing the Montara oil spill. The report of the Australian enquiry is awaited

Big Oil presents a global public health problem

So what are the health impacts of these events? Oil pollution is toxic and has caused much ill health and death in developing countries for the action of Western based companies in which many invest through their superannuation. In a contracting world food production is severely damaged and communities disrupted. The huge sump of oil lying in the Gulf and the Atlantic is predicted to harm marine life for generations. There are direct toxic effects on humans from contaminated water and food and the uncontrolled flaring of wells in Nigeria which produce toxic fumes.

Now that the US faces the consequences of a huge oil spill, there may be regulatory reform analogous to that imposed upon banking cow boys. The US south over many decades has already tasted the destruction of communities through industrial pollution. Environmental awareness is increasing. I recommend you read Local Advocates Say Gulf Disaster Is Part of a Longstanding Pattern of Cultural Destruction Click here
There is a wealth of information on the health aspects of oil spills at  the US National Library of Medicine Click here

 David Shearman