One year ago tomorrow, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven people and spilling 4.9 million barrels of oil, and an equivalent volume of gas, into the sea over the course of three months. For weeks after the disaster, we watched in horror as thick red-brown slicks seeped their way across the blue waters of the Gulf towards fragile shorelines, like blood leaking from a gaping, infected wound. Reports rolled in of dead and dying fish, marine mammals and sea birds coated in black sludge and vulnerable marshlands choked with slime, while debates roared over who should be held responsible for the damage and who could be trusted with the clean-up.
Recovery in the Gulf
One year later, Nature.com shares a review of clean-up and restoration efforts over the last twelve months, assessing the damage that’s been done and the effects likely to stretch into the future.
Of the nearly 5 million barrels of oil and 9 million liters of chemical dispersants released by BP into the Gulf of Mexico last year, approximately 25% remains unaccounted for, with another 50% forming surface slicks, sinking to the seafloor, washing up on beaches or “dissolving” in the last twelve months.
Scientists report that clean-up and a full assessment of the damages may take another 40 years or more: “[O]il and dispersants are toxic to both shallow and deep ecosystems, according to Larry McKinney […], who predicts the spill’s effects will last for decades.”
Long-term effects will be harder to detect, but more insidious. If oil persists in ocean and marsh sediments, plants and animals will be exposed to its effects, and it will inevitably enter the food chain. “Some bird populations haven’t recovered more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska due to food chain disruption,” says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington DC.
Studies have shown that dispersed oil is more toxic than oil or dispersant alone, and dispersant chemicals had never before been used at depth, so the effects are not yet known. Scientists are also still sorting out the effects of oil on the deep-sea environment.
In the meantime, deep water oil drilling continues in the Gulf of Mexico, after the federal government lifted the drilling moratorium back in mid-October 2010. “We will drill in deep water because that is where the oil is, and we need the oil,” says Tad Patzek, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin. Ten new permits for drilling have already been approved since last year’s disaster, with three bills pending in the House of Representatives that would require increases in off-shore drilling on both the Atlantic and West coasts.
Safety regulations for deep water oil rigs continue to lag behind industry practices, while the newly-renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) lacks adequate funding, staffing and resources to establish and enforce effective regulatory policies.
A Pagan Retrospective
Last year, I reported on the BP oil spill over at Pagan+Politics:
As a Pagan, the natural world rests at the heart of my spiritual practice, but as a pacifist I feel compelled to turn a critical eye on my own relationship with the earth and its ecosystems to ensure I have not come to rest comfortably with the notion of nature as a luxury item, a religious accessory. To treat the natural world as a commodity or convenience, even if a soul-nourishing one, would be to demean or reduce it, to deny its power, to dishonor it in all of its gory, glorious complexity. In other words, to view the natural world as a luxury is to commit a particular kind of violence against it. We have seen the very real ramifications of this subtle violence in the past few weeks. Few of us today live in a world where we must face the harsh obstacles of untamed wilderness, though many of us are daily confronted with the burdens and injustices of civilization. It can be as hard to care about the tragedies affecting fish and birds a thousand miles away, as it is difficult to appreciate nature in our own backyards for more than its aesthetic and therapeutic qualities.
Yet it is my conviction that in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with the very earth that sustains us, we must learn again how to live as part of the natural world with awe, with reverence, and with love. It is easy to feel a tug of pity as I watch the pathetically struggling gull gasping in slime, or to feel sentimental regret over the thought that my partner and I might never be able to follow in my parents’ footsteps and see the Everglades as they once were. But there is real sorrow, and rage, when I think on the human species as an animal of nature in its own right, capable of selfishness, ignorance and destruction on such a scale. Confronted with this reality, and the reality of the natural world as itself bloated with strife and death, I swing between despair, and the ugly wish that Mama Earth rid herself of us once and for all and get on with her life. The only thing that can resolve this for me — the only way I can make peace with this reality of the natural world — is through love.
It is a message that bears repeating now, twelve months after the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon spill, when so many other political injustices and disasters have intervened and divided our attentions.
Natural disasters in Haiti and Japan have rallied Pagans from all over the world to contribute their time and money towards recovery and recuperation, and the outpouring of support (headed especially by Peter Dybing and his campaign for Doctors Without Borders this past spring) have been inspiring. Yet aside from the human toll such tragedies take, there are deeply troubling environmental consequences as well. On-going efforts in Japan to prevent a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station, for instance, involve pumping tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water into the ocean.
When faced with natural disasters that wreak havoc on human communities, we often respond valiantly by pledging our time, money, energy and support. Are we as willing and able to do the same when confronted with man-made disasters that put ecosystems, landscapes and other nonhuman communities at risk? Do we engage in the difficult, daily work of establishing the cultural infrastructures and social organizations necessary to respond to environmental crises with swiftness and efficacy? Do we act on and live out our love for the earth that creates and sustains us through advocacy and engagement?
Or do we continue to treat nature as a luxury? A regrettable loss, perhaps, but not worth the uproar or the effort?
The Nature Conservancy is calling for large-scale, long-term restoration efforts of the Gulf of Mexico’s waters and wetlands, funded by the oil spill fines due to the federal government from BP.
Recent survey findings show strong support for this decision. A survey, conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Nature Conservancy from April 12-14, 2011 among 2,018 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, showed that:
- 79% of U.S. adults did not know that the fines BP pays will be directed back to the federal government’s treasury instead of directly to the Gulf states, and
- 87% think that the fines BP will have to pay for the oil spill should go back to funding improvement of Gulf states and restoration of the lands and waters of the Gulf.
Restoration would include not only oil spill clean-up, but “numerous projects to restore oyster reefs, seagrass beds, coral reefs and coastal forests and marshes,” and would require cooperative efforts from a number of organizations, non-profits, businesses, universities and local communities.
Check out The Nature Conservancy’s website to learn more and get involved.