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.
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 more 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.”
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 Nation, Michael 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.
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.