The TEDxOilSpill Expedition team – photographers Duncan Davidson and Kris Krug, videographer Pinar Ozger and writer Darron Collins – were kept far from the water’s edge by BP’s private security firm, Talon, whose staff controlled the beaches. When Collins literally crossed the line by stepping over a miles-long orange boom dozens of yards from the water line, he was accosted by a team right out of “Monsters Inc.,” who set about washing his feet and decontaminating his shoes with great flurry and fanfare.
It took persistence, luck and a gutsy pilot to score a flight into the massive”no fly” zone to better see and document water set afire and oily sheen to the horizon.
What the photos can’t tell you is what it smells like. So let me describe it for you: Walk into a garage. Take a case a motor oil and dump it onto the ground. Take a bunch of gasoline. Pour it on top of it. Now take a can of propane. Crack it open. Let the propane vent out into the air. Maybe take another and light it on fire. Now take some Windex. Throw it into the mix. That’s what it smells like when you’re orbiting the site.
- Duncan Davidson
Photographs and video also can’t show what is happening beneath the surface – though what little we have seen, isn’t good: video of the broken pipe gushing clouds of oil and gas 24/7 on “BP cam”; video from 20 to 30 feet down taken by intrepid divers, among them Philip Cousteau, another of the day’s speakers, revealing sheets of red-brown “mousse,” undulating in the waves, blotting out the sun, blotting out life.
Yet it is the devils you cannot see that present the most insidious threat to recovery. “We have only explored about 5% of the world beneath the sea,” noted Dave Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the best of times, we barely have a clue what’s going on down there. “We don’t know how it works. Especially a mile deep.”
What has been glimpsed is humbling. Parts of the deep ocean – regions that have never seen a ray of sun – have more life in terms of density and diversity than a tropical rain forest.
No one has any idea what the effects of a massive oil spill or the massive use of dispersants will have on these ancient ecosystems, or, indeed, how these ecosystems fit into greater Gaian scheme of things.
“Who’s calling these shots?,” asked Gallo. “At the deep ocean, who’s in charge?” Fundamental questions remain unanswered: “What’s coming out that well? What’s the mix of oil, gas, the toxic elements? What’s the flow rate? … Where has it gone? Where is it going? … What will the impact be? … Why don’t we know?”
Some of the best ocean warriors I know are still sitting in their labs, wondering what’s going on… It is another war. It is another Gulf War.
Spraying oil dispersant, Corexit, on surface slicks in the Gulf of Mexico
Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s studies suggest Corexit is fairly benign, labeled “practically nontoxic” when half the shrimp or fish died at exposures of 130 parts per million and”slightly toxic” when the seafood went belly up at concentrations between 19 and 55 parts per million, those tests tested the wrong thing: The question is not what Corexit does in isolation, but in combination with oil.
According to Shaw, it is a nightmare. The dispersant makes it easier for oil to get into the skin and organs of animals and microbes because it breaks down the oily lipids protecting cells. In effect, it serves as a oil delivery system, transporting toxic compounds to where they can wreak the most havoc.
Government agencies and corporations often use the phrase, “the best science available,” which sounds cutting-edge and progressive. But when “the best science available” isn’t very good, it can be dangerous. What we don’t know can kill.
Diving in the slick goo of the Gulf, Shaw saw first-hand “the web of death” as small plankton at the base of the food chain were enveloped by globules of Corexit-treated oil.
* Read about Consensus Statement: Scientists oppose the use of dispersant chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico – drafted by Susan Shaw)
Naturally-occurring oil-loving microbes can make a faster meal out of smaller blobs, but they are slow eaters. Adding a dash of fertilizer can help speed up the feeding process, said Ron Atlas, a microbiologist who worked on the Exxon Valdez and several other spills. But “speedy” can mean 8 years instead of 10, he explained, and in a situation as literally fluid as this one, all bets are off. By the time microbes might make a dent in the Deepwater Horizon gusher - now measured in “Exxon Valdezes” (one every 5 to 7 days) – it will be a silent sea, with only a fraction of the life that filled it prior to the spill.
Corexit-treated oil also easily and sereptitiously slips past skimmers and booms, taking the “low road” to marsh and shore. Many now fear that a hurricane-driven tidal surge will transport this poisonous water inland, turning whole towns toxic.
For Carl Safina, the only explanation for its use is a cover-up. “Personally, I think the dispersants are an attempt to hide the body because we have put the murderer in charge of the crime scene.”
WE ARE ALL SEA CREATURES
The use of dispersants also baffled Sylvia Earle, a Time magazine “Hero of the Planet,” TED Prize-winner and all around emeritus: “If you were to write a recipe for good health for the Gulf of Mexico, for the lives of the creatures who live there, it would not include use of dispersants to clean up this mega-spill. It would not include the spills at all.”
Earle, who just returned from diving among whale sharks feasting on plankton about 70 miles off the Louisiana coast, is torn between delight at seeing more whale sharks than she could count and worry because these surface-skimmers are right in harm’s way. If the spill oozes into their feeding grounds, they wouldn’t be able to avoid either filtering gallons upon gallons of oil-tainted water, or soaking in harmful aerosols at the surface.
She is also worried about the devastating effects on fish populations that rely on theGulf’s sargassum for nurseries. Lose the sargassum, which soaks up oil like a sponge, and fish populations, including bluefin tuna, will crash. If the slick is picked up by the Gulf stream, as many fear, it will threaten another vital nursery, the Sargasso Sea, a 5,000 square kilometer “liquid jungle” floating in the mid-Atlantic just south of Bermuda. Both are what Earle calls “Hope Spots,” which if protected could help restore the oceans to their former healthy bounty.
The Deepwater Horizon gusher is just the latest in a centuries-long marine assault that has led to the depletion of fish stocks and put fully one-third of all marine mammals in danger of extinction.
Now is the time. We have a little window before it is too late to take actions that will secure for – not just the creatures of the sea – but for all of us connected to the sea. We are sea creatures.
A "galaxy of oil rigs" in the Gulf of Mexico / Nearly 4,000 40-story tall rigs drilling 32,000 wells; map credit: NOAA
Out of sight and out of earshot, right off the shores of the Gulf Coast, is a sprawl of 4,000 drilling platforms tapping into 32,000 wells, stitched together by thousands of miles of pipeline, pumping 1.7 million barrels of oil each day. “This is our addiction. This is what it looks like,” said Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
It is “a galaxy” of platforms, vast yet so dense, ship captains navigate by “constellations.” Each platform rises from the water forty stories tall, powered by massive diesel generators whose locomotive sound defines the region. 30,000 mostly men work on the platforms, with thousands more running supply ships, running refineries or working in other support-related jobs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Speaker after speaker hammered home the message that oil is a jobs-killer: Recycling fishermen into clean-up crew, trading nets for booms, doesn’t count. There is a brighter future, by every definition, they promised, in developing a clean energy economy: wind turbines, solar panels, biofuels, efficiency.
But as doable as doing without oil may be, the logistics are complicated by a world designed around cars and trucks. “We have designed a system where if you want to get and keep a job, it is much more important to have a car that runs than to have a GED,” noted Lisa Margonelli, energy policy analyst at the New America Foundation and author of “Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.”
We don’t talk about the amount of oil that we use. We talk about energy independence. We talk about hydrogen cars. We talk about biofuels that haven’t been invented yet. Cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of how we deal with oil.
Key to fixing the system is changing the game so that the rules quit favoring oil consumption. That means charging drivers who drive more higher insurance rates. It means providing more and better public transportation options so we can all drive less. It means adding a small gas tax to make gas less desirable, and fund greener alternatives. It meas adding a surgeon general’s-style warning to the bill to help consumers connect the true-cost dots:
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that ever gallon of gas you burn in your car creates 29 cents in health care costs.
Few have focused as intently or as long on turning fossil fuel companies into fossils as Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute. His latest initiative, Reinventing Fire (RF), builds on more than three decades of research:
Imagine fuel without fear. No climate change. No oil spills, dead coal miners, dirty air, devastated land, lost wildlife. No energy poverty. No oil-fed wars, tyrannies, terrorists. No leaking nuclear wastes or spreading nuclear weapons. Nothing to run out. Nothing to cut off. Nothing to worry about. Just energy abundance. Benign and affordable for all. Forever.
Twitter satirist @bpglobalpr / Leroy Stick, who has ridden the razor’s edge of plausible corporate idiocy to 180,000+ follower fame, summed it up with trademark brevity: “If you think the status quo is unacceptable, then don’t accept it.”
Easier said than done, perhaps. But what else are we going to do?
Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.
Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 - that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).
Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis, X Prize CEO.
With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.
- “A Tank of Gas, A World of Trouble” – Paul Salopek / Chicago Tribune
- “Dudley: BP Intends to Meet Commitments in the Gulf ‘For Many Years’” – Ray Suarez / PBS (video/print)
- “Ten Myths about the Deepwater Spill, Busted by Oceana” - Rachel Kaufman /National Geographic
- “Drilling Down: Conversations on the Gulf’s Disaster” - Need to Know / PBS (video/print)
- “Multi-million Dollar Oil Spill Cleanup X Prize Announced at TEDxOilSpill”
- Gulf Coast Fund
- Gulf Restoration Network
- Mission Blue (Sylvia Earle’s TED wish)
- Consortium for Ocean Leadership
- Blue Ocean Insitute
- “Carl Safina on The Colbert Report”
- The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation
- Institute of Maritime History
- Earth Institute, Columbia University
- Carbon War Room
- STRONG America 2020 (Strategies to Reduce Oil Dependency Now), New America Foundation
- Louisiana Bucket Brigade (mapping)
- Grassroots Mapping
- Oil Reporter (crowdsourced data collection tool)
- Farai Chideya
- “Veins in the Gulf,” produced by Ted Hardin and Elizabeth Coffman, Long Distance Productions