The most pathetic images I have seen in the aftermath of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizons deep-oil drilling rig were of pelicans drenched in oil, with brown glistening gunk matting down their plumage. When pelicans become covered in oil, they can’t properly regulate their body temperature. In Louisiana summer, they overheat and die. One aid contractor comments on a pod of black-headed pelicans, stating that they “are supposed to have white heads. The black is from the oil. Most of them won’t survive…They keep trying to clean themselves. They try and they try, but they can’t do it.” If they manage to avoid dying from overheating, they often get sick because oil poisons the fish they feed on. Oil can also penetrate their eggs, killing the embryos. Aid-workers can feed pelicans fish-mush and calm them down for a day, then use warm water and detergent to clean their feathers, but the pelicans go back home to their nesting grounds, many of which are inundated with oil. Even though the aid-workers rescue some of the pelicans — not many of them, as most die at sea or in the marshes — they end up dying anyway.
The second-most pathetic image was Obama speaking in that curious manner he has — as though his jaw had been wired shut — about his “outrage” that BP was “nickel-and-diming” the Gulf Coast while oil is destroying it. Obamologists quickly resorted to clucking about whether Obama was showing sufficient outrage, whether that outrage was feigned or genuine, whether his rhetorical uptick to commentary about “kicking some ass” was planned or showed genuine anger, and so on. This is good fun for a chattering class that crafts political and social analysis with about as much incisiveness as a bunch of gossip columnists, but there may be more important work to do than perfecting our skills in Obamology.
A few suggestions. Recent investigations have shown that most of the oil from the spill is deep beneath the ocean, where it is more still and under intense pressure. Under that pressure, it is starting to emulsify — not mixing with ocean water in the sense that it’s joining molecules, but instead is breaking down into tiny droplets that mix into the ocean water. The plumes are not swaths of ocean water carbonated with billions of bubbles of oil; they are made up of incredibly dispersed or even dissolved hydrocarbons. Sometimes, they are there in enough quantities to discolor the water. Mostly the water is clear, “so-called invisible oil,” as one oceanographer dubbed it, sometimes smellable, and always clearly evident on the measuring tools used to assess contamination. Combined with the toxic dispersants that BP has used to break up the oil at the well-head, this could be trouble. The New Scientist comments, “The deep ocean plumes this helped create are a mix of dispersant, emulsified oil and water. How marine life will be affected is anyone’s guess.”
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That oil will migrate up the food chain in various ways. Zooplankton and smaller organisms will slowly concentrate the oil toxins in their bodies, mistaking tiny globules of it for food. Those oil toxins will concentrate as they move up the food chain, as toxic chemicals tend to, because the toxins are generally quite difficult or impossible to metabolize. Or they can concentrate in mollusks — mussels, oysters, clams — that filter ocean water through their bodies. Predators then eat them. No one knows what will ultimately happen, but oil, when ingested, frequently damages animals’ internal organs and immune systems and can cause behavioral changes that impact their survival. Oil could eventually contaminate the entire Gulf food chain.
The Obama administration has declared a commercial fisheries failure in the Gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. This frees up federal grants for those directly impacted by the oil spill. Money won’t solve this problem. The area walloped by the spill provides America with 50 percent of its oysters and shrimp, more than one third of its blue crab, and a quarter of its fin fish. “We have contaminated our food basket,” said Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Obama and BP are busily totting up sums of damages, as though this is merely an accounting problem, remediable by enough greenbacks stuffed into the pockets of the fishermen of Baton Rouge and Napoleonville. They are dead wrong. The damage from this process will be incalculable, as the damage from the penetration of pollutants into the natural environment that Rachel Carson wrote of with such amazing elan in Silent Spring, cannot be counted, only measured indirectly by the Western cancer epidemic and rising extinctions. Ecologists are concerned about the terms that BP and the Coast Guard are bandying around, especially “ecological restoration,” like they are fixing a dinged-up antique. “We should be talking about remediation. We have no positive indication from our research that we can restore ecosystems once we’ve damaged them severely…We never get back what we lost,” comments scientist Peter D. Roopnarine.
There’s more to the tragedy. While we (thankfully) pay some attention to ecological calamity in the Gulf, we myopically ignore the other systemic damage oil extraction incurs, usually in third-world countries. While Obama is bursting with confected rage about damage to the Louisiana fisherman, who for sure he doesn’t care about but who do at least have the formal privilege of casting a vote for one of the two business parties, he was keeping quiet about oil extraction in Peru while meeting with Peruvian president Alan Garcia, who has been busily signing off on death-warrants for the Peruvian Amazon. Garcia recently opened up 25 more lots there for oil and gas raiders. Right now about 75 percent of the Peruvian Amazon has been licensed for gas and oil exploration and drilling. 41 percent is “covered by active concessions,” and the amount of leased land has risen six-fold since 2003.
Oil extraction is filthy business, and Peruvians are getting angry. A year ago, in the Amazonian town of Bagua, indigenous protesters staved off oil exploiters with sticks and rocks in violent confrontations that led Garcia to call in the Peruvian army to quash the protests. 34 people were killed fighting to oppose oil extraction on their territory, which they rightly fear will undermine their local ways of life and destroy the possibility of a development strategy that will enhance their lives, rather than make their existence and ancestral lands an adjunct to Western fossil-fuel-driven consumption patterns.
Nigerians have been living for several decades now amidst the swirling, sticky hell that Gulf coastlands are about to experience. The Niger delta, the epicenter of Nigerian oil production, supplies 40 percent of imported American crude and leads the world in oil pollution. Its 606 oilfields are poison-fields. Life expectancy in rural communities — 50 percent of which have no access to clean water — has plummeted to around 40 years of age in two generations. Locals blame the oil. As the writer Ben Ikari comments, “If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention…This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.” Between 1970 and 2000, there was an average of two spills every three days, amounting to approximately 7000 spills. There are 2,000 official “major spillages sites,” and thousands more unregistered, waiting for cleaning.
William Mkpa, a community leader in Ibeno, Nigeria, adds, “The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily. The situation is now worse than it was 30 years ago. Nothing is changing. When I see the efforts that are being made in the US I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards. What they do in the US or in Europe is very different…it is not tolerable.”
When we extract oil, we destroy the planet. If there’s a long-term American moratorium on deepwater drilling, a troublesome little nuisance for oil companies that wish to profit off of it, we’ll instead depend on Peruvian or Nigerian crude to fuel our obscene, ridiculous lifestyles. Then it’ll be Nigerians and Peruvians dying, the Nigerian delta ridden with petroleum, the Peruvian mangrove swamps sodden with something that should have been left deep in the earth where it’s not so poisonous. But it’d be a miracle if we were even to see that much. So when Obama, looking perpetually afflicted with lockjaw, claims that BP CEO Tony Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements,” defending BP’s post-spill actions, what are we to think? Is Obama confused? Hayward might not continue working for Obama after those statements, but there’s no question that so long as Obama keeps making rhetorical genuflections to the notion that oil company CEOs work or do not work for him, putting things pretty much backwards, Obama will certainly keep working for them (BP gave Obama $71,000 for his 2008 presidential run).
Obama partisans will immediately object, waving around the 20 billion dollar escrow account that Congress agreed to this week. “Obama and the Democrats do hold energy companies accountable! All you do is criticize and naysay!” will be the tenor of the reproach. Except it’s clear that the costs of cleanup will far overrun that 20 billion dollar account, probably setting the scene for a taxpayer bailout of one sort or another—the socialization of losses amid the privatization of profits. Here are the numbers you won’t read. In 2009 BP’s profits were $13.96 billion, down from $25.59 billion in 2008. In the first quarter of 2010, it had $5,598 million in profits. It will pay into the escrow fund $5 billion for the second half of 2010, then $1.25 billion a quarter, $5 billion a year, until $20 billion has been paid in. Shares went up on the announcement. Shareholders aren’t dummies. They know that BP will keep making money even while the Gulf of Mexico will be poisoned in perpetuity, while the lawsuits which will theoretically hold BP accountable will stall in courtrooms stuffed full of Chicago-school appointees who, despite never having read Adam Smith, insist that his philosophy and political economy can be reduced to, “Screw poor people.” The lawsuits will fare accordingly.
Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth, said, “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident is that the oil companies are out of control…It is clear that BP has been blocking progressive legislation, both in the US and here. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high. They must be taken to the international court of justice.” BP blocks progressive legislation because its lobbyists guide the hands of the legislators who in a more reasonable world would be responsible for drafting it. Of course, they then tell their marionette in the White House not to try to transition to a post-fossil-fuel, solar economy — it’s harder to make money from decentralized energy that comes from the sky than centralized, capital-intensive petroleum extraction.
And in the Gulf of Mexico? Millions of gallons of oil keeps gushing and gushing from the hemorrhaging pipeline, while Obama emotes, while he and the congress, both in total thrall to the people that paid for their elections, work tirelessly to maintain this silly system that systemically produces Deepwater Horizons disasters, and while the lower reaches of his governmental apparatus collude with BP in preventing scenes from the Gulf devastation from reaching the world. For some reason, I don’t think Obama’s father was telling him to dream about being complicit in the death of the planet. People don’t want to see anger. They want to see change. And if Obama can’t supply it, they’ll find someone who will.