In an effort to broaden the conversation about the horrific Gulf Coast oil spill, nine Fellows of the Post Carbon Institute offer their perspectives on largely underreported aspects and outcomes of the disaster.
The True Costs of Production & Environmental Racism
“As corporate entities continue to extract natural resources from the earth, whether on sea or land, there needs to be a shift in calculating the true costs of "production". Risk management assessment needs to also include: costs associated with climate degradation both in terms of increasing fossil fuel and mineral use and, of particular interest in this latest disaster, the high costs of environmental racism.
“A colleague of mine, working in New Orleans (Nat Turner of the Blair St. Grocery Project), in a discussion about the oil spill and impacts on the ecosystem pointed out that this is poised to be a La Nina year with increased risk for powerhouse hurricanes that will suck up the oil and dump it all over an already devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. These hurricanes don’t need to make landfall, they just need to send oil-laden water to shore. This looming disaster, this transference of the millions of gallons of oil to shore, is something no one is calculating.
“We must demand corporate reparations and a full re-hauling of inspections and development of environmentally sound risk management and disaster preparedness plans for offshore oil drilling in our fragile seas.”
Erika Allen is Chicago Projects Manager for Growing Power, a nationally acclaimed non-profit organization and land trust led by founder Will Allen that provides equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe, and affordable food, especially in disadvantaged communities. She helps food producers of limited resources strengthen their farm businesses and work in partnerships to create healthy and diverse food options in inner city and rural communities. Erika is co-chair of the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, and was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn in 2008 to the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force.
Deepwater Denial: Not Much Left to Drill
"Yet another serious problem for the prospects of future oil production is starting to emerge. The deepwater wells, on which we are basing much of our energy future, may not be as productive as previously thought. Until recently the poster child for deepwater oil production was BP's Thunderhorse platform that, after years of delay, started producing in 2008 and was supposed to produce a billion barrels of oil at the rate of 250,000 barrels a day (b/d). At first all seemingly went well with production reaching 172,000 b/d in January of 2009, but then production started falling rapidly to a low of 61,000 b/d last December. BP refuses to comment publicly on what is happening at Thunderhorse, but outside observers are growing increasingly skeptical that the platform will ever produce the planned billion barrels. At least 25 other deepwater projects are said to be facing problems of falling production, raising the question of just how much oil these very expensive deepwater projects will ever produce."
Tom Whipple is one of the most highly respected analysts of peak oil issues in the United States. A retired 30-year CIA analyst who has been following the peak oil story since 1999, Tom is the editor of the daily Peak Oil News and the weekly Peak Oil Review, both published by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is also a weekly columnist on peak oil issues for the Falls Church News Press. Tom has degrees from Rice University and the London School of Economics.
We Drill to Satisfy Demand: The Real Cleanup Starts with Family Planning
“President Obama is expected to sign an executive order to form a Presidential commission to investigate the Gulf oil spill. We may never know who is directly liable, but we know with absolute certainty who bears the ultimate responsibility: it is us. We are drilling in hazard-prone areas because of humanity’s insatiable appetite for oil. And that’s just one of a myriad ways in which human activity is endangering wildlife.
“Last week, the Convention on Biological Diversity released its third Global Biodiversity Outlook report, and noted that the population of wild vertebrate species “fell by an average of nearly one- third (31%) globally between 1970 and 2006, with the decline especially severe in the tropics (59%) and in freshwater ecosystems (41%).” It reported that, “The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history,” and it warned that "massive further loss is increasingly likely.”
“The CBD lists two “indirect” drivers behind the loss of wildlife: population growth and rising consumption. If world’s leaders continue to focus on boosting consumption and we don’t do a lot more to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the world, the outlook for the Gulf area and the world is grim.”
William Ryerson is founder and President of Population Media Center, and President of the Population Institute. He has a 38-year history of working in the field of reproductive health, including two decades of experience adapting the Sabido methodology for behavior change communications to various cultural settings worldwide. In 2006, he was awarded the Nafis Sadik Prize for Courage from the Rotarian Action Group on Population and Development. William received a B.A. in Biology (Magna Cum Laude) from Amherst College and an M.Phil. in Biology from Yale University.
Screw Nature. We Want Wal-Mart!
“The map of the area threatened by the BP blowout, comprising nearly half of the US’s coastal wetlands, looks like tattered lace. It’s a realm of islands, shoals, estuaries, marshes, swamps, bayous, and creeks, land speckled across water, water twining across land, all of it in flux. There appears to be an infinity of shoreline, with a near infinity of oil to be washed by tides and blown by hurricanes and carried by ocean currents into those wetlands to be caught in the reeds and sea grasses, to clog the silts and sands and choke the dwellings of the minuscule life forms that constitute the basis of the enormous banquet of life the Gulf of Mexico has immemorially provided.
“It’s crucial habitat for countless species of birds and other animals, to say nothing of the gumbo of Southern Louisiana’s cultures. Much of the reporting on the blowout has rightly concerned the human economy of the Gulf, the peril spilt oil poses to place-based industries like the fishing and tourism. Yet the damage to nature’s economy will be incalculable. No matter how sincerely or mediagenically our political leadership vows to fix things and hold the perpetrators to account, ecological disasters of this magnitude admit of no relief.
“Excepting its magnitude, BP’s Deepwater Horizon gusher is an almost routine occurrence. Since 1996, reports Robert Kennedy, there have been 39 blowouts in wells in the Gulf of Mexico prior to this gargantuan event. An outright ban on offshore oil drilling is the only sure way to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. Vastly outnumbering the killed and injured workers, whose loss alone is infinitely grievous, the majority of the victims of this dependency—the wildlife, the landscapes, and the future generations of human beings—are voiceless. Bereft of clout, their claims are faint as compared to the din of PR, the white noise of the status quo, and our general human aversion to sacrifice and inability to defer gratification.”
Stephanie Mills is a renowned author and lecturer on bioregionalism, ecological restoration, community economics, and voluntary simplicity. Stephanie has lectured at numerous institutions, including the E.F. Schumacher Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In 1996 she was named by Utne Reader as one of the world's leading visionaries.
American Drivers Need to Shoulder Gulf Coast Burden
"We aren’t looking at the real cause, which is not just demand, but demand created by inherently inefficient suburban planning. The majority of Gulf oil is being used to power cars and trucks serving suburban U.S. homes and business. We need to plan a way to reduce suburban/ exurban impact on the nation's oil use. Gulf communities, and other communities worldwide (Niger River Delta) are shouldering the burdens of American drivers. Suburban citizens nationwide should start a campaign to drive less and donate the resulting savings to Gulf fishing industry, as it’s their fossil fuel - heavy lifestyle that has made this type of tragedy inevitable.
It’s also of interest to note that solar cells or wind power have nothing
to do with this issue in terms of current solutions. Oil is not used to power electricity or heating anymore in the US (only 2%, versus 67% for transportation
We need to rethink our community planning if we want to reduce our oil dependency , climate impacts and economic viability. Economics are already dictating that car-dependent sprawled communities cannot compete with market demands for denser, mixed use, transit-oriented communities. Higher oil prices, climate change and oil-related megadisasters like the Gulf oil spill will make exurban sprawl obsolete by the end of the decade.”
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings. Warren is on the board of directors for the Climate Change Center and the Korea Green Foundation, and has lectured in three continents, appearing in global media including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, People's Daily (China), BBC, CNN and CNBC.
Approaching the End of Oil: The Last Frontier
“The BP Deepwater Horizon was the latest but certainly not the last major oil spill. Although it was pushing the limits of water depth and sub-seafloor depth—at 5,000 and 13,000 feet respectively—it was far from the record book, as wells have been drilled in more than 9,000 feet of water reaching more than 25,000 feet deep. Mother Nature is unknowable to the last detail in such physical conditions, and therefore it is impossible to eliminate risk completely. Why are we doing this? Because this is the very last frontier for oil extraction.
“The cost of Deepwater Horizon in both ecological and monetary terms will be phenomenal. Yet it is unlikely to significantly impact the race for offshore oil to fuel the addiction of our growth-based society, which now consumes more than 30 billion barrels per year (equivalent to the daily output of 17,000 Deepwater Horizon wells, which is a very productive well as oil wells go). Ultimately, this race will lead to ever-diminishing returns, owing to declining energy return on investment and escalating ecological and monetary costs.”
David Hughes is a geoscientist who has studied the energy resources of Canada for nearly four decades, including 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada as a scientist and research manager. He developed the National Coal Inventory to determine the availability and environmental constraints associated with Canada’s coal resources. As Team Leader for Unconventional Gas on the Canadian Gas Potential Committee, he coordinated the recent publication of a comprehensive assessment of Canada’s unconventional natural gas potential. He is currently president of a consultancy dedicated to research on energy and sustainability issues.
“We’re largely overlooking the absolute interconnectedness of the effects of the tragedy–stretching into all aspects of life as we know it in that region. Humans (emotional, psychological, economics, food), Physical (air, beaches, contamination of the whole water column, loss of barrier islands) and Biological (plants, microbes, aquatic life, birds, mammals). The tragedy in the Gulf parallels other current ecosystlem collapses (polar ice sheets, glacier-dependent systems, island inundation from sea level rise) and even our global economic system, 80% of which is dependent on natural resources. It’s all connected but we continue to turn a blind eye.”
Gloria Flora is founder and Director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, an organization dedicated to the sustainability of public lands and of the plants, animals and communities that depend on them. In her 22-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, Gloria became nationally known for her leadership in ecosystem management and for her courageous principled stands: as supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in north-central Montana, she made a landmark decision to prohibit natural gas leasing along the 356,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front. She serves on the Montana Climate Change Advisory Committee and works throughout the U.S. with the Center for Climate Strategies in assisting states develop climate change action plans.
Hook or Crook: California Will Reduce Oil Consumption
“Is offshore drilling environmentally responsible? This is a multifaceted problem. California produces about 1/3rd of its crude consumption today, with the balance coming from Alaska and overseas (with Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, and Iraq being the largest foreign suppliers). This means that there are large oil tankers arriving in California almost daily, and these tankers can pose as much of a threat of an environmental disaster as a spill from an offshore oil well. But California and Alaskan production peaked some time ago (California peaked in 1985), so we face a future of even higher levels of tanker traffic (the California Energy Commission forecasts 100-250 additional tanker visits annually by 2030, depending on the size of the ship, and up to 175 additional visits by 2020) as domestic production continues to fall. But even with additional offshore drilling here, it would not make up for continued decline in California and Alaska production, so imports would need to continue in any case, though it would serve to reduce tanker traffic.
What this suggests is that the only truly environmentally responsible way for California to minimize the threat of future damage from oil spills is to cut consumption of oil, and this state is woefully unprepared to deal with this third option, although it will come about, either through intention or as a consequence of declining global production.”
Since 1995, David Fridley has been a staff scientist at the Energy Analysis Program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He is also deputy group leader of Lawrence Berkeley's China Energy Group, which collaborates with China on end-user energy efficiency, government energy management programs, and energy policy research. Mr. Fridley has nearly 30 years of experience working and living in China in the energy sector, and is a fluent Mandarin speaker. He spent 12 years working in the petroleum industry both as a consultant on downstream oil markets in the Asia-Pacific region and as business development manager for Caltex China. He has written and spoken extensively on the energy and ecological limits of biofuels.
Education System Will Benefit from Nature’s Course
“Aboard a boat in the Gulf of Mexico this week, Vernon Asper, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, told NPR: ‘The very best thing probably is to let nature take its course.’
“He was not, of course, alone in his response (in this case, referring to the deep-water microbes that decompose oil.) In the face of the daunting Gulf of Mexico oil spill—still spilling, one month after the explosion—it is tempting to resort, on rational or spiritual grounds, to thoughts about the healing powers of nature. We poor humans, after all, don’t yet even know how much oil has spilled, or how to stop it.
“But how might things have turned out differently if more of us had understood the course of nature—and acted on that understanding—before this crisis hit? Would we have better estimated nature’s capacity to compensate for human mistakes and limited ourselves to actions and technologies whose consequences we could manage? Would we have learned to calculate and live within an energy budget that doesn’t require dangerous extraction practices?
“If there is any good at all to come of the latest Gulf disaster, it is that more people might recognize the very real need for schools to accept responsibility for nurturing a new kind of understanding and caring, which has been variously called ecoliteracy, ecological intelligence, and education for sustainable living.
“We urgently need schools to prepare young people for a world marked by climate change, water shortages, and significant threats to food security—and then share the teaching and learning experiences that inspire them to develop more creative, sustainable ways of living.
“Education for sustainable living recognizes that the skills and wisdom that were once sufficient for our survival as a species are no longer adequate for modern life. It reveals the hidden web of connections between human activities and nature’s systems and our impact on the planet, health, and social systems. And it points young people in the direction of better, more sustainable ways of living.
“Surely, it’s a better than hoping that nature will bail us out of our messes.”
Zenobia Barlow is cofounder and executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy and a Post Carbon Institute fellow. More at www.ecoliteracy.org
Photo credit: Paul Mirocha