Make no mistake:BP stinks. Their Gulf accident and safety violation record, their lack of transparency, their short-term profit focus are all sickening. But ultimately, BP is only truly responsible for this spill if you believe that drilling for oil in a mile of water can ever be done safely. BP is part of a system that has made us all dependent on oil and petroleum-based products, and with our consumption spurring demand, we must all shoulder some of the blame for the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
It’s not just about the gas for driving cars. Oil is everywhere, trickling throughout our consumer-driven society. Denture adhesives, electric blankets, bras and bubble gum…they all contain oil. Cameras, carpets, umbrellas, vitamin capsules…ditto. Perhaps we are finally waking up to realize that what once seemed so cheap and plentiful is actually very, very expensive–and becoming more so. While scientists and politicians argue about whether Peak Oil (the moment of the global peak in oil production) has occurred or when it will, the fact is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to extract a complex product derived from ancient sunlight and the earth’s immense pressure.
The excellent environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert nails it: “Having consumed most of the world’s readily accessible oil, we are now compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it in ever riskier and more damaging ways.” It was only a matter of time before this disaster occurred.
In fact, other oil-producing countries endure spills and accidents and ongoing degradation of health and environment as a result of careless extraction. Reuters quotes Holly Pattenden, African oil analyst at consultants Business Monitor International. “If this (the BP spill) were in the Niger Delta, no one would be batting an eyelid. They have these kind of oil spills in Nigeria all the time.” A recent eye-opening report on the situation in Nigeria is terrifying and chastening. On May 1 a rupture in an ExxonMobil pipeline spllled more than one million gallons into the Niger Delta in the space of a week. According to the Guardian: “In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico” in the BP spill. Nigerian writer Ben Ikari states: “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.” Over half of Nigeria’s oil exports go to the U.S.; Nigerian oil makes up 8% of all U.S. imports.
Can the devastation that has only just begun serve any positive purpose? Can we turn our anger into action, tough action? The kind of action where, in the short term, our cost of living will soar and our ability to get around will diminish? Can we give up some products and services, knowing that we will be sparing untold misery elsewhere and in the future? Can we sacrifice funding other projects to create a concerted, global plan for getting off fossil fuel by both reducing demand and developing alternatives? The search for easy answers is hopeless. The time for serious attention to getting off oil has come.
Image: © Stephen Sweet via iStockphoto