Monday, May 10, 2010

Oil



On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker called Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in the Gulf of Alaska. By that time it had been barely 12 years after a major oil pipeline was built in this state when Alaskans saw one of the largest spills in North America; 10.8 million gallons of crude oil blanketed the cold, pristine waters of Prince William Sound, over a distance of 1300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean.

I was about 12-years-old at the time of that spill, and Alaska was a faraway place. The devastation that ensued was an abstract concept to my schoolgirl mind, captured by photos of baby seals drenched in thick, black, muck. I looked at them as if they were pictures of a car accident--disturbed, but luckily, I didn't know anyone there. They were strangers to me.

Fifteen years later I moved to Alaska. I caught my first salmon in Prince William Sound. And this past weekend was the fourth time I decided to frolic in Seward, a small city with the population of less than 3,000, situated on the coast of the Kenai Penninsula. Its major industries are commercial and sport fishing, and of course, tourism. I've been to Seward at least three times prior, and this weekend, my boyfriend and I hit the tourist trek with his friend visiting from New York City. We signed up for a nature cruise.

And, like the other four times I have visited with and without nature cruises, we saw orca whales, porpoises, otters, bald eagles, a black bear, puffins, and massive sea lions, all on the open water. The amount of sea life I've seen in Resurrection Bay has been consistent on all my visits, spanning over five or six years. It is almost as if the animals are paid entertainers on call.


After watching them in their own habitat, we visited some more at the Alaska Sea Life Center which is also a major biological research center. At one point I stood face-to-face with a stellar sea lion, the largest breed of sea lions in the world.


Being a child born of some of the proceeds collected from Exxon Corporation after the spill, the Center itself brought to my mind the impact of oil on these creatures and this serenity I was enjoying in Seward. Placards informed me that despite the picturesque setting of Seward, even today the spill continues to rear its ugly head, particularly when rain storms beat to the water's surface the crude oil tucked away under sand and rocks. It is estimated that 28,000 gallons remain on shore. Hundreds of thousands of animals died, and populations of salmon and other wildlife are still affected.

The factors blamed for the spill were numerous and varied, including but not limited to the supertanker's unrepaired sonar system, the known alcohol-abuse issues of Captain Hazelwood, and his poor decision to have his unrested third mate take the helm after deciding to avoid icebergs and take another highly dangerous route. Also blamed was the single-hull boat which was standard practice at the time for hauling millions of gallons of crude oil through iceberg and reef laden waters. (As a result of the accident, single-hull boats will be phased out of use in American waters by 2015.)

I am now 33 years-old, and as I write this blog, oil continues to spurt into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, at the conservative estimate of more than 210,000 gallons a day. It has been over five weeks since it began. The spill is a result of an exploratory well belonging to British Petroleum that was cursorily plugged. The exploration had already exceeded projected costs and time was of the essence. The well exploded, resulting in the death of 11 workers and injury of 17 others. When the time came, the safety device in place could not be properly activated. The precise cause of the disaster has not yet been identified with certainty at this point, but as in the Exxon Valdez spill, human error is at the forefront. Some staff from BP have reported that drilling exceeded allowable levels, but public relations for the company has made denials. BP is pointing finger to contractors, but says it will pay.

The spill is the third in four years suffered by Louisiana waters, and the second one in the Gulf of Mexico in 10 years. BP staff have not figured out how to stop the leakage of this current spill. There was mention of shooting golf balls into a hole in the ground.

Strangely enough, the spill occurred within a week after I made the decision to relocate from Alaska to New Orleans.

Fuel-efficient or not, I drive a car. I buy my food from the store. And on the rare occasion when I grow it, the necessary supplies were delivered to me by a fuel-consuming vehicle. Sure, my hobbies are non-motorized, I sometimes ride a bike for transportation, and I attempt to reduce my carbon footprint when I can. But oil is a part of my life. Moreso since having moved to Alaska, where the public infrastructure is paid for by funds resulting from oil proceeds, and where I accept a check from state government derived from oil funds. In some countries in Northern Europe, oil proceeds provide excellent public education systems, healthcare, and stable retirement for all their citizens. Oil, and drilling for oil, is a part the lives of millions in one way or another, and it would be unrealistic not to contemplate--not to expect--spillage to occur as a cost of doing business. But to what extent? And what is the price?

Society accepts the phenomenon of the oil spill. Consider the following statistics:

- The oil spill resulting from the first Gulf War was the single largest one in history. Iraqi troops opened valves as a war tactic to foil a landing by US Marines. Statistics differ widely, but by conservative estimates, it resulted in the release of--at the very minimum--42 million gallons of oil, or five times the Exxon Valdez spill.

- The largest oil spill in this country occurred in New York City (Brooklyn). In 1978, a leak was identified at a stream near the traditionally ethnic neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn. It was surmised that the source of the spill came from a refinery and had been leaking steadily for two to three decades prior. The resulting spill is estimated at three times that of Exxon Valdez. Toxic amounts of benzene have been detected in nearby residential soil. Litigation against BP commenced in 2006.

- Oil resulting from runoff of our parking lots and streets every nine months exceeds the amount from Exxon Valdez spill.

And now the Gulf of Mexico gets its second oil spill in ten years. Like syrup, the oil has already begun coating the intricate network of marshes along the coast of Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. Experts believe that the clean-up process will necessarily aggravate the situation by moving the oil even deeper within the filigree of grasslands. It is already projected that the local fishery, one of the largest in the U.S., will be devastated for some time.

Part of Alaska's wildlife was restored through clean-up efforts following Exxon Valdez. Over twenty years later, I can take a boat ride and see seals, bears, eagles, and porpoises. But local fisheries are still affected. Some of the wildlife breeding patterns were permanently affected. And Exxon oil still rises to the surface after a heavy storm. The effects of the spill are still being documented as we speak, over twenty years later.

What is strange to me is that all this has been seen and done before. Oil has been drilled before. And refined before. And shipped before, through waters with icebergs and reefs. And spilled before. And it's shocked us before. And cleaned-up(ish) before. We know about human error and where it is likely to occur. And it continues to happen. And I continue to drive a car. And eat food from the market and at restaurants. And collect an oil dividend check as an Alaskan.

What is the value of modern living? And what is the value of oil? In the end, who ends up paying the costs?