Monday, July 19, 2010

Tomgram: Ellen Cantarow, Blowback Crude

I don't know about you, but when I see a headline like this one (from the July 11th Washington Post), "White House Confident Latest BP Effort Will Work," my heart immediately sinks.  Of course, there's a first time for everything, but amid the ever worsening news from the Gulf of Mexico's waters about astonishingly high methane concentrations, dangerous levels of arsenic, the lack of testing of seafood for absorption of toxic compounds from the dispersant BP has been massively pumping out, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "hoarding" of raw scientific data about the disaster, and both BP's and the government's "stranglehold on media access" in the Gulf, that oily undercurrent of a positive narrative has been relentless (even as press coverage slowly begins to drop off).  At the end of the storm lies hope and a rainbow.  Or at least a permanently sealed well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, three days after that confident headline, the same government showed something less than confidence in BP.  It suddenly moved to freeze that company's work on closing the new version of "top hat," the massive "3 ram capping stack" meant to seal off the well, until further testing could be done.  Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu and his experts feared that closing the cap's valves might actually cause even more harm to a possibly already damaged well bore.  In the meantime, the oil, essentially cap-less, continued to gush forth, as it had for days, even as work on the first relief well, the supposed permanent solution to the problem, was halted for fear of further problems while the testing went on.

Late Wednesday, the test of the cap finally began, only to be briefly interrupted by the discovery of a leak on a line attached to one of its valves.  Everything was again halted briefly before those valves were finally closed and the oil did stop for the first time in 87 days; and yes, in the next few days, for all we know, that seal may hold, or maybe this nightmare won't really end until the dog days of late July or mid-August, all dates repeatedly promised for the completion of the relief well.  Or maybe not then either.  The positive story line has been offered up and deep-sixed so many times already that, as with warnings on a cigarette pack, even with good news coming in, caution is still advised.  Worse yet, if the happy ending does come, we already have a reasonable hint about how this story works out.  As with the Exxon Valdez spill, big oil may prefer to learn remarkably few lessons from this disaster, as it prepares to head into far rougher waters in search of ever tougher oil to extract.  After all, the big oil companies have preferred to learn next to nothing, as Ellen Cantarow makes clear, from a 50-year history of disastrous spills in Nigeria and a decades-long version of the same in the Amazon.

And of course, in these last weeks when the Northeast has been sizzling under record temperatures (with more to come), and researchers at the University of Alabama's Earth System Science Center have concluded that the first five months of 2010 were the second hottest in human history (runner-up only to 1998) -- and this decade the warmest on record for the planet -- the worst disaster may prove to be not the gusher in the Gulf, but the gas in our tanks.  (To catch Ellen Cantarow discussing what led her to this piece, listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview by clicking here, or to download it to your iPod, here.)  Tom

Big Oil Makes War on the Earth 
The Gulf Coast Joins an Oil-Soiled Planet
By Ellen Cantarow

If you live on the Gulf Coast, welcome to the real world of oil -- and just know that you're not alone.  In the Niger Delta and the Ecuadorian Amazon, among other places, your emerging hell has been the living hell of local populations for decades.

Even as I was visiting those distant and exotic spill locales via book, article, and YouTube, you were going through your very public nightmare.  Three federal appeals court judges with financial and other ties to big oil were rejecting the Obama administration's proposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.  Pollution from the BP spill there was seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. Clean-up crews were discovering that a once-over of beaches isn't nearly enough: somehow, the oil just keeps reappearing. Endangered sea turtles and other creatures were being burnt alive in swaths of ocean ("burn fields") ignited by BP to "contain" its catastrophe.  The lives and livelihoods of fishermen and oyster-shuckers were being destroyed.  Disease warnings were being issued to Gulf residents and alarming toxin levels were beginning to be found in clean-up workers.

None of this would surprise inhabitants of either the Niger Delta or the Amazon rain forest.  Despite the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Americans are only now starting to wake up to the fate that, for half a century, has befallen the Delta and the Amazon, both ecosystems at least as rich and varied as the Gulf of Mexico.

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