Is Gulf spill really going to lead to changes?

Author Carl Safina, here to talk to People for Puget Sound, has seen big moments that provide environmental warnings, but we still rely heavily on fossil fuels.
Crosscut archive image.

A satellite photo of the Gulf oil spill moving toward Mississippi

Author Carl Safina, here to talk to People for Puget Sound, has seen big moments that provide environmental warnings, but we still rely heavily on fossil fuels.

You don't need a wake-up call unless you're sleeping. The Gulf oil spill has been widely touted as a wake-up call. But who was still sound asleep?

"There is an attempt to make this a pivotal moment," says Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The Eye of the Albatross, and a former National Audubon Society vice-president, who was in town recently to keynote People For Puget Sound's annual spring breakfast. But "since I was in high school, we've had maybe five pivotal moments." None seems to have set us on a radically different energy course.

We still rely heavily on compressed dead things from the Paleozoic Era and spew more carbon dioxide than ever into the air. Petroleum is still fouling the oceans, and the blanket of CO2 is changing their chemistry.

The first of those moments was the Santa Barbara oil spill that greeted the brand-new Nixon administration at the start of 1969. An offshore well blew out, crude oil gushed into the Pacific, and images of oil-coated seabirds led the TV news and the major newspapers all over the world.

The Santa Barbara spill is credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement, and helping inspire a spate of important legislation. Before the year was out, Congress had passed Sen. Henry Jackson's National Environmental Policy Act, and in short order, we also had the Environmental Protection Agency and the first Earth Day.

Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire later in 1969 — never mind that it had been catching fire periodically for more than 30 years — became another pivotal moment. Three years later, over Nixon's veto, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.

But energy policy? A different kind of pivotal moment arrived with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, when gas prices spiked, supplies fell, and motorists lined up in the dark for a chance to fill their tanks when gas stations opened. People talked about independence from foreign oil producers. The Nixon administration actually launched Project Independence, which was supposed to accomplish just that. Congress established CAFE standards for cars and a 55-mph speed limit. But here we are.

"For 30 years, we've been saying we need diversified energy, clean energy," Safina says. However, when push has come to shove, "we have sat on our asses and we are stuck with the same kind of dirty energy" we relied on back then. (Ironically, the Gulf spill may have doomed the Kerry-Lieberman energy bill, which had been tricked out with a provision for more offshore drilling in an effort to win Republican votes. Offshore drilling will be hard to sell for at least a while, but without it, the votes may not be there for the deeply flawed Kerry-Lieberman — much less a better energy bill.)

Safina isn't saying we should stop drilling tomorrow or even next year — although he is saying that we should not let oil companies keep pushing their Gulf rigs out into deeper water like BP's ill-fated, but aptly named Deepwater Horizon. (In 1989, deepwater drilling accounted for about 3.5 percent of Gulf oil production. Last year, it accounted for about 80 percent.) But that doesn't mean we should tow all our rigs off into the sunset. "No one is saying 'shut the oil industry down,' " he says. "That is a caricature ... a straw man."

And he isn't saying that a change in energy policy, by itself, will make the problems of the oceans go away. We still have to do something about overfishing. (The Unitied Nations estimates that only 25 percent of commercial fish stocks around the world are healthy or reasonably healthy and that if we keep on hammering them, virtually all commercial fish stocks will collapse by 2050. The decline of fish populations is driven partly by mutli-billion-dollar annual subsidies of commercial fishing fleets.) We still have to do something about stormwater contamination in places like Puget Sound. But as the oil gushes out and the sea ice recedes, and the oceans become more acidic, doing something to halt climate change looks like a good idea.

Safina is currently trying to find backing for a series of TV shows focusing on people who have made a difference in the fight to save the oceans. His pilots feature people from Zanzibar and Belize. He's looking for good examples from all around the world. Those examples are important, he says. They show people whats possible.

"Part of the problem is a lack of vision," Safina says. That seems to be part of the human condition. "Henry Ford said if he had asked people what they wanted, most would have said a faster horse."

Solving the problems of the oceans will require a somewhat longer view. The real barrier, Safina says, it that 'ꀜpeople don't see where we could go.'ꀝ  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.