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BP Stands For "Big PR"

We’ve all had the images burned into our brains lately, a blackish, murky plume of gas, oil, and pressurized water gushing endlessly out of a large, broken pipe a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. We now know for certain what the experts proclaimed weeks ago—that oil is escaping at the minimum rate of 25,000 barrels per day and quite possibly at two to four times that rate. Even BP is now promising to capture over 50,000 barrels per day by July after insisting for more than month that only 5,000 barrels per day were escaping. Based on the revised but still conservative estimates, an Exxon Valdez-sized spill is escaping into the Gulf of Mexico every two weeks or less.

Even more frightening and humbling is our apparent helplessness in the face of it all. The world’s most powerful government and one of the world’s largest corporations seem powerless to plug the hole and stop the primary but not only leak, and to prevent the massive oil slick drifting around the Gulf from washing ashore and ruining hundreds of miles of prime coastline, including beaches and wetlands. The latter are the spawning grounds and nurseries for oysters, shrimp, and many species of food and sport fish that have supported generations of watermen and their families, until now. All of this and the multi-billion dollar tourism business are in jeopardy not only this year but for many years to come.

Some species of rare wildlife may vanish from the Gulf of Mexico altogether, like bluefin tuna, certain sea turtles, and coastal birds, including pelicans. Particularly if the smaller fish and invertebrates on which they feed are poisoned by the oil and the dispersants which emulsify and proliferate it. An entire ecosystem may become so degraded that it sustains neither wildlife nor the tens of thousands of people who earn a good living from it. And for what? For barely enough oil to run America for an hour or two, and so that BP could save a few million dollars in drilling costs. Obviously, that didn’t work out any better for BP executives and shareholders than it did for coastal residents, businesses, and wildlife.

Even before the president’s oil spill commission is selected to probe the causes of this tsunami-scale disaster, we do know that a fair amount of the fault lies with the past few decades of deregulation, particularly during the George W. Bush years, deemed far worse than the Regan era in terms of environmental deregulation. There can be little doubt now that the “top secret” energy policy meetings convened by Dick Cheney in the early days of Bush administration laid the groundwork for the cozy relationship between regulators and the regulated, which led to the explosion of the drilling rig that triggered the current oil disaster.

So now after nearly two months, BP is finally being asked to post an environmental bond to begin compensating the victims of this BP-caused calamity. However much is put into the fund—even if over $20 billion, the current high estimate—it is likely to fall far short of the total economic and ecological cost even for one year’s damages, let alone the overall cost over a decade or longer.

It is all too easy for us here in New York to regard this disaster as something that could never happen here, since we don’t appear to have rich oil deposits either underwater or on land. However, we do have abundant natural gas reserves scattered throughout our region, which have triggered a bit of a gas boom here, especially in parts of the Southern Tier. Many landowners have already been seduced into signing long-term leases for exploration and drilling, with the understanding that natural gas is a “green fuel” and that the entire extraction process must likewise be green. The reality is far different. Among other things, gas drilling requires injecting “mud” down the shaft. The mud is a slurry of multiple compounds, some of them highly toxic. Unfortunately, gas drillers aren’t required to reveal the toxic brew of compounds that they use to break through layers of rock, soil, and water. As a result they have contaminated aquifers around the nation, including in New York, leaving families and entire towns without potable groundwater.

The documentary Gasland, currently on HBO, documents this recurring problem, as well as other examples of devastation inflicted on leased lands. It behooves all of us here in New York and the Northeast to become informed about the perils and pitfalls of gas drilling on land and in our coastal waters on Lake Erie, which energy companies have been eyeballing for decades. If they manage to convince a cash-strapped New York State government that offshore gas drilling is clean and completely safe (even though it isn’t) and an accident occurs at an offshore gas well, we could be watching a similar-looking plume of escaping gas, possibly mixed with oil, gushing forth from the bottom of Lake Erie for weeks on end. So it behooves us to watch our backs close to home and to stay abreast of the issue via the media. In addition, if we don’t pressure our state and federal representatives to update regulations on oil and gas drilling on land and sea, as well as safety and environmental cleanup technologies (like Kevin Costner’s company’s oil and water centrifuge) post haste, we may end up with a dedicated coal, oil, and gas disaster channel and a poisoned planet—not to mention freaky phenomena like oil raining down on us, especially during hurricane season.

Carl Mrozek, Lancaster

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