Coinciding with the eruption of Mount St. Helens 30 years ago, I came to the Northwest to study our ever-less-resident and now endangered killer whales. Since completing my graduate research at the University of Washington, I have dedicated myself to preventing what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico from occurring here while improving our ability to respond if it does. It is from this perspective that I reflect on the slow-motion crisis that is playing out in the Gulf, looking at our strengths and weaknesses in the Northwest as well as BP's operations here.
I've been struggling to try to keep up with the voluminous accounts of British Petroleum's (BP) deadly oily eruption from its inception on Earth Day to the first sign of some control 50 days in time for World Oceans Day (June 8). But we're looking at long-term impacts that won’t be known for years especially given that we still aren’t even sure how much oil is entering the Gulf.
I have become all too familiar with BP over the years having commented on their waste water permits, successfully challenged the expansion of their Cherry Point refinery dock without adequate prior environmental review, and have worked to protect the state’s once largest and genetically distinct herring run at Cherry Point by petitioning it for listing under the Endangered Species Act and by working with Washington state Department of Natural Resources to create the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. While I'm not neutral, I am familiar with the subject.
What I have seen tells a great deal about the poor job that the nation has done in preparing for a massive oil spill of this sort, even with the improvements in law made after the Exxon Valdez disaster. It should spur us to much more significant reforms, regulatory changes, and attention to ongoing operations in all the nation's waters, including our own Salish Sea, Olympic Coast, and Columbia River.
BP has given new meaning to the Gulf's nickname of being this nation's "oil patch" as the rusty slime of emulsified crude extends throughout the water column, owing to the unprecedented use of dispersants whose chemical properties are trade secrets despite the inevitability of them ending up in our seafood. While dispersant use is intended to trade off surface and shoreline impacts (e.g., birds and bad press) with the less visible impacts on the marine food chain, protocols call for them to be applied on the surface of waters of at least 100 feet deep, not directly at the bottom as currently applied. As a result, NOAA has had challenges in evaluating the volume of the spill from surface trajectories; meanwhile the practice is undermining the ability to recover the oil at the surface, if there were equipment available to do so.
Despite adding over a million gallons of toxic dispersants to what must be over 20 million gallons of crude spewed so far (two Exxon Valdez-sized spills), various surface slicks have impacted four states' shorelines while the underwater plume is far more difficult to track. In addition, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has produced a model showing the oil following the Gulf Stream up the East Coast. Perhaps it will even reach BP's English shores — talk about trouble coming home to roost.
Like being in a car accident, this human and ecological nightmare is unfolding in apparent slow motion covered by 24/7 press. Despite all the attention and all the people trying to seize this teachable moment, it is difficult to get a clear message.
One thing is clear. A disaster of this size is perhaps the only way to overcome the stranglehold that the oil industry has on Congress, the administration, and the judiciary in the Gulf, where half the judges had to recuse themselves from cases stemming from the spill. Such indelible incidents in history afford an unprecedented opportunity to make progress on several fronts.
Some have rightly noted if the oil industry can't respond to a spill in a region littered with oil rigs, personnel, and infrastructure, they should not be allowed to drill in deep water, much less the remote waters of the Arctic. Others have taken the broader message that we need to wean ourselves off oil by instituting a carbon tax, as we should have learned after the Santa Barbara blowout 40 years ago. The inability of the government to independently evaluate the status of the situation a mile below the ocean's surface has renewed calls for greater investment in deep-sea research technology.
Closer to home, less direct connections have been made to this concentrated crude geyser with the impacts of storm water run off, which diffusely pollutes the Sound with gasoline and other toxic derivatives. While storm water needs to be adequately addressed here, BP helped to champion the defeat of the Washington legislature's proposed 2010 Clean Water Act, which would have raised $100 million for storm water infrastructure projects.
Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that commercial vessels ply Washington waters carrying 15 billion gallons of oil and fuel yearly and that the state Department of Ecology's spills program is badly underfunded. The 5-cent per barrel tax that funds Ecology's program has not increased in 20 years, and the nickel is refunded if the oil is exported after it's refined.
The National Response Program (NRC), which provides oil spill response coverage for all the cargo and passenger ships as well as the spot-market oil tankers, has been badly out of compliance with state spill response requirements for years. Despite the fact that the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) covers the refineries and has far more equipment than NRC, they do not cover all the tankers calling on the refinery docks. In addition, Canadian-bound vessels add risk and complexity to our oil spill exposure but bring very little more response capability to the table. Yet, as much traffic heads to Vancouver, B.C. as goes to Seattle and Tacoma combined. And this was the situation before Washington state sent what little offshore response equipment we have to the Gulf.
So what have we learned? To begin with nothing is too big to fail, not even "failsafe" machines like BP's modified blowout preventer, which has not stemmed over 20 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the past month. Claims that this unprecedented spill was due to human factors and not a mechanical failure do little to explain why the response to this eventuality has been so ineffective.
The pervasive influence of the oil industry is well established and needs to be managed. Part of the problem with our nation's poor oil-spill preparedness, besides the well publicized corruption within the Minerals Management Service, has to do with what has become to be known as "low probability, high consequence events."
This jargon basically means that big spills happen infrequently, but when they do the impacts are immense. Therefore, the oil industry has been able to convince regulators that it is not cost-effective to have significant stockpiles of equipment and personnel available to respond quickly, because it would be needed so infrequently.
Once a spill occurs, oil majors are prepared to spend enormous amounts of money ($1 billion and counting when insurance is paying) on what appears to be a heroic response, but due to inevitable delays associated with not being prepared from the time of the spill, the effort, as in the Gulf, ends up being too little, too late. Now more is being spent on PR damage control than has been previously spent on spill prevention and preparedness, which would have rendered the full page ads and search term purchases on Google largely unnecessary.
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