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Is Another Oil Spill Disaster Looming?

Is Another Oil Spill Disaster Looming?

Oil has hit shore in Louisiana, and despite BP’s best efforts to keep the media away, reporters can now touch the greasy stuff with their hands and feet. The onrush of oil into the Gulf has continued for over a month now, and while BP is still trying to staunch both the spill and media spin, the company is losing control over the information that’s reaching the public.

The Environmental Protection Agency demanded this week that the company use a less toxic dispersant to clean up the spill, and independent scientists are releasing estimates of the spills volume that dwarf BP’s numbers in terms of magnitude.

Right now, a catastrophe of this scope seems like an unprecedented, one-off event. But across the energy industry, at other drilling sites, in other industries, companies are taking risks and courting environmental disasters on the same scale.

“Bayou Polluter”

BP, which was operating the rig before the spill, has other sins on its head. In Louisiana, “fishermen say BP spills oil every year and they point out marshes still dead from dispersants that were sprayed there,” marine biologist Riki Ott writes for Yes! Magazine.

The latest disaster could cause exponentially more damage, but it is far from unique. On Democracy Now!, former EPA investigator Scott West, describes a case in which one of the company’s Alaska pipelines burst, spilling oil out onto the frozen tundra. BP had ignored workers’ concerns about the integrity of the pipeline, West says, and during warmer months, the resulting spill could have reached the Bering Sea and created a much bigger mess.

“Now we’re seeing the same sort of thing in the Gulf, in this catastrophe,” West said. “And information is coming to light that corners were cut and that employees’ concerns were being ignored. It’s the exact same pattern that we saw with BP in Alaska.”

Beyond BP

But a new report, which combs over the oil industry as a whole, shows that “BP can’t be singled out,” writes Public News Service. The report “found that operating errors and incidents around the globe are more common than the public likely realizes because most events don’t make the news.”

As countries like the United States become more desperate for fuel, accidents like the spill in the Gulf Coast become more likely. Extracting oil from tar sands, hydrofracking, deep-sea oil drilling: these are tricky techniques for extracting fossil fuel that are becoming popular only because the world’s store of easily accessible energy is almost gone. In The NationMichael Klare writes about the new quest for “extreme energy options” and the contingent risks.

“By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe–something that has been far too little acknowledged,” Klare writes. “As energy companies encounter fresh and unexpected hazards, their existing technologies…often prove incapable of responding adequately to the new challenges. And when disasters occur, as is increasingly likely, the resulting environmental damage is sure to prove exponentially more devastating than anything experienced in the industrial annals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Tar sands a slow-motion spill

It’s not just BP that’s playing fast and loose with its environmental impact. Extracting fuel from tar sands, a source for oil that’s gaining in popularity as an alternative to off-shore drilling, takes a dramatic toll on the environment.

Inter Press Service writes that, according to a new report, “Oil sands development is kind of like the gulf spill but playing out in slow motion.”

The extraction process demands lakes of water, which, once contaminated, are held in pools. “Those toxic ponds pose a hazard to migrating birds, risk contaminating nearby soil and water resources, present health problems to downstream communities and, the report notes, pose the risk of “a catastrophic breach,”” IPS explains.

A director at the National Resource Defense Council described tar sand extraction as “a slow-motion oil spill every day,” writes The Texas Observer’s Forrest Whittaker. The United States is poised to consume even more oil from this source, too, he reports:

“In the works is a 2,000-mile underground pipeline from Alberta to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, including BP’s Texas City facility. The high-pressure pipeline, proposed by TransCanada, would be capable of carrying 900,000 barrels per day, enough to more than double consumption of tar-sands oil in the U.S.”

Government intervention

As Whittaker reports, the Obama administration has been supportive of these sorts of efforts, and this week questions about the government’s leniency towards BP and the energy industry started bubbling up. In this climate, the government should be stepping in to defend the safety of the country’s people and its environment; instead, even the Obama administration is giving the energy industry a long leash to pursue its projects. On Democracy Now!Scott West, the EPA investigator, described the pattern he saw during his investigation:

“What the government has done over the past several years is taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable. So, decisions have been made, very poor decisions have been made, to increase profits and put workers at risk and been allowed and endorsed by the federal government.”

The current oversight has not much improved. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his colleagues are pushing for a $10 billion cap on liability for oil companies, for instance, but the administration has argued for a lower limit, the Washington Independent reports.

Without real accountability from the government, BP could escape with little damage, Riki Ott explains in her Yes! Magazine piece.

“In the Exxon Valdez spill, people counted on the oil company to respond to and clean up the mess, and we counted on Congress and the legal system to hold the oil industry accountable for damages to the environment and local communities and economies. In hindsight, these turned out to be bad ideas,” she writes. “Exxon dodged penalties through long court battles,  systematically underestimating the scope of the spill, and leveraging the costs of clean-up to avoid fines and penalties.”

BP doesn’t need to escape accountability in the same way, though; Ott has suggestions for actions that anyone can take to ensure the company pays the price for the damage it has caused.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint.


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photo credit: ingridtaylar via flickr
Image is from the 2007 Cosco Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

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129 comments

+ add your own
9:22PM PDT on Jun 27, 2010

Thanks

5:01AM PDT on May 30, 2010

This is just so scary and horrible...

1:29AM PDT on May 27, 2010

So the US govt is going to LIMIT THE LIABILITY OF CORPORATIONS to $10 billion when thru corrupted safety practices they devastate America... so just like with the banksters, the citizens will be made to pay...
oh well, that's fair, US citizens consume 90% of the world's resources after all, and are responsible for most of the pollution, disasters and wars that occur, in fact US financiers and industrialists kicked off world wars 1 and 2 and every war since, profitting immensly in the process, just ask the Bushes, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, IBM, Standard Oil etc etc etc.
Yet in the 'richest, most powerful nation in human history' 40% of the population live in poverty with no 'dividend' from their citizenship shareholding in the wealth of the nation, no health, no education, no oportunity, no hope, etc and then there are all of the 'illegal residents' who have even less while being exploited more.
Welcome to americageddon on planet earth...

10:53PM PDT on May 25, 2010

BP will have to pay for the consequences of this oil spill for years, so I hope the legal framework is in place to ensure this happens.

HUMANITY MUST STOP RELYING ON FOSSIL FUELS. ALL FURTHER DRILLING FOR OIL MUST STOP NOW. OTHER SOURCES OF ENERGY SUPPLY SHOULD BE INVESTED IN FROM NOW ON.

9:22AM PDT on May 25, 2010

It really has to stop NOW!

7:04AM PDT on May 25, 2010

Oil spills are killing our sea animals & natrural hahbitat.

4:50AM PDT on May 25, 2010

Drilling for oil period is STUPID, as is the government of this planet. I am sick and tired of their bone-head moves, and until enough people care enough about the enviornment and wildlife this crap will continue. I hate to say this but I don't care how many people are unemployed by shutting down oil corporations, get re-trained. The enviornment is far more important then even human beings, because, with out it your dead anyways. I mean really are people that stupid that they don't get it. People need to have their voices heard not go along with the status-quo, oh and by the way everybody should become less reliant on oil so that these corporate criminals make less. I understand that people are unwilling to walk more, take the bus, or even ride a bike. I never drove a car in my life and never will, because, I am will to inconvenience myself for the enviornment. And I feel good about it. But until things change and people are less selfish we will all suffer and have no one to blame but ourselves.

4:24AM PDT on May 25, 2010

How sad that it takes something of this magnitude to show what we as an ignorant country are doing!!! Yes we need a fuel source, sad as that is. But with the technology we have why not take all the waste that we produce all over the country and incinerate it and reuse the heat produce as such??? We have this technology now, why not use it on the scale it needs to be, Common Sense, we have so much waste now in terms of what we use and what we produce, what is wrong, government will not make a PROFIT on this practice!!! My Gosh wake up , it is not just other people suffering you bureaucratic fools, you have family and friends and yourself who will be affected by this ignorance also!!!!! Why must we always have to have a disaster to see what is so eminent down the road. We have such advantaged technology, we must have those people in that field in government, to say no this is how we must proceed or else this is what will eventually happen, so we do this!!! Oh why is it a little peon can see the magitude of all the problems we have and see solutions???

10:25PM PDT on May 24, 2010

Drilling needs to stop now. It is pathetic that a country like ours still continues to rely on such a dirty and non-renewable source for energy when there are plenty of alternatives around, to the point that something like the Tar Sands would be viewed as a "good" alternative. People like those of BP should be forced to bathe in the oil they drill for and see how they like it.

7:39PM PDT on May 24, 2010

We, AS CONCERNED AMERICANS, MUST be made more aware of the suffering of all the endangered species in the area of the opil spill. i believe we should insist on a live video cam showing their suffering. That, I believe, would arouse the nation's people to insist that BP take charge immediately to SAVE OUR ANIMALS AND WILDLIFE pronto. WE MUST BE KEPT AWARE. We have to fight BP and the government and plead with them to act faster. The entire world is jeopardy, as i see it if this thing is not stopped immediately. No more pussy-footing around! JaneR

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