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David Helvarg

David Helvarg

Posted: May 1, 2010 01:16 AM

Apocalypse Again

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It's happened before but you wouldn't know it reading the New York Times. On April 28, the Times wrote a "Gulf Spill" editorial defending continued offshore oil and gas exploration. Without questioning its source it wrote, "the federal Minerals Management Service says there have been no major spills -- defined as 1,000 barrels or more -- in the last 15 years, a period that includes Hurricane Katrina. In that context, the blowout -- while tragic and destructive -- can be seen as a freak occurrence."

But when I was down in the Gulf covering Hurricane Katrina less than five years ago, the Coast Guard reported that over eight million gallons of oil spilled in and around the Gulf, more than two thirds of an Exxon Valdez. Of course, that wasn't from the 180 rigs damaged, destroyed or set adrift like the Jack Up rig Ocean Warwick that I saw grounded in the surf on Dauphin Island Alabama. The MMS, parsing things very finely indeed, was only counting spills from active offshore rigs, not the pipelines, onshore tank farms, refineries and other infrastructure essential to offshore operations.

While traveling the Gulf between hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I was reminded of war zones I'd previously covered, seeing fewer casualties (about 1,600 dead at the time) but far wider destruction. I was convinced that after the dead were all counted and mourned, the massive oil spill would become a major media story. But it never did, much to my surprise and that of some of the Coast Guard Environmental Strike Team members I later interviewed for my book Rescue Warriors. Nor have we heard much about the half million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf last year when I flew with the Coasties into Hurricane Ike in Texas. Nor has there been any talk of the persistent leaks and pollution that comes from the rigs I've visited in the Gulf or of the spills that drift down the Mississippi from upriver refineries and barge traffic -- like the more than 60,000 gallon spill last year that hardly made the news outside southern Louisiana.

Of course, for a disaster on the scale of what we're now seeing, you'd either have to go back to the 2009 blow-out in the Timor Sea off Australia that took months to get under control but was largely ignored by the U.S. media or, if you want a Gulf of Mexico precedent you'd have to go back to 1979 when the Mexican-owned and U.S.-operated Ixtoc platform exploded, gushing 150 million gallons of oil in a fiery uncontrolled spill that lasted ten months and fouled the beaches of Texas, including the Los Padres National Seashore. (Several men died trying to control it.) Although some coastal communities were up in arms, the oil-dependent state government kept notably silent during that ongoing eco-disaster.

But of course, the history of offshore oil and gas development has always seen industry moving rapidly into new frontier waters and then trying to develop "safer drilling technologies" only after disaster strikes, whether your talking about the oil-slimed drilling piers and gushers of Summerland California in the late 19th century, the Union blow-out in Santa Barbara in 1969, the Deep Waters of the oil fouled Gulf today or the Arctic Ocean of tomorrow where the industry doesn't even pretend to have technology capable of cleaning up a spill on or under sea ice.

I once asked the former chief of the environmental division of the Mineral Management Service why the agency has never canceled an oil lease sale based on its own oil-spill risk assessments. His response: "It's hard to make or break something as big as a lease on one issue."

The debate used to be between marine pollution and energy. Today it's no longer just about the loss of lives and livelihoods, destruction of America's wetlands or America's most productive coastline that we're seeing. It's also a product liability issue. This product, used as directed, overheats our planet. Among other actions needed, it's time to re-establish the moratorium on any new offshore drilling that was abolished in the waning days of the Bush Administration and also for the Obama administration to stop pretending we can drill our way to clean energy and start making a more serious commitment to offshore wind and wave energy, ocean thermal, algae-fuels and other carbon free possibilities. After all, no ecosystem has ever been destroyed by a wind spill.

I've been on BP deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and I mourn the loss of their people killed and injured along with the tens of thousands of other people now being affected. I respect the roughnecks and roustabouts I met on the drill decks working the hydraulic tongs and the derrick men above them leaning out from their monkey boards like trapeze artists to grasp the pipe tops and line them up with the rubber mud hoses dropping down from above. They all worked together in a loud, clattering, steel-toed ballet to move those pipe strings down through thousands of feet of seawater and tens of thousands of feet of rock knowing the risks. Some wore T-shrits reading, "New Rig, New People, New Records." They showed the same professional pride as America's 19th-century whalers with their harpoons and try pots, who, by extracting leviathans' living oil, lit and lubricated an earlier industrial age until they too passed into history. I've also seen enough oiled birds up close and personal. It's all too awful and it's time to move on.