On the Horizon

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

As a disastrous oil spill spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, it also rekindles hope for renewed political action on climate change and energy.

Credit: US Coast Guard

One month ago in a speech at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, President Obama announced the expansion of offshore oil exploration and drilling to vast swaths of US coastal waters, including much of the southeast continental coast and the northern Alaskan frontier. The move shocked many of the President’s supporters, particularly those who had in part voted for him for his reasoned opposition to the Republican litany of “drill, baby, drill!

Politics, rather than science, likely drove Obama’s decision: According to a 2008 report from the US Department of Energy, substantially increasing domestic offshore drilling would require decades of development and significant capital investment, yet would scarcely assuage rising gas prices. On the other hand, lifting offshore restrictions could help secure bipartisan cooperation in Congress on climate-change legislation, and in this November’s upcoming elections the measure could still be wielded as a totem against high gas prices. And of course, this week’s announcement that construction on America’s controversial first offshore wind farm could proceed also provided a late-breaking, if tepid, green panacea.

Now, another obstacle for Obama’s plan has emerged. Last week, for reasons still unknown, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico malfunctioned. Afterward it caught fire, burned, and eventually sank to the ocean bottom. Eleven missing rig workers are now presumed dead, and by the beginning of this week an enormous, growing oil slick around the sunken structure made it clear that the well beneath had begun gushing crude oil into the sea. Initial estimates placed the rate of leakage at 1,000 barrels (159,000 liters) per day, but the daily flow is now believed to be five times as great. Stanching the leak could take months, and the spreading slick is already imminently threatening surrounding areas, including the delicate coastal marshes of southern Louisiana which act as nurseries for countless birds, fish, and crustaceans. If the leak continues at present rates, in late June it will surpass the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 in total volume of oil discharged.

The Deepwater Horizon leak is shaping up to be a tragic and colossal ecological catastrophe. But it is nonetheless a lesson for which to be thankful. As an indirect byproduct of developed nations’ thirst for oil, spills of this magnitude and worse have periodically devastated ecosystems around the globe. For decades America has exported much of its share of this environmental degradation, but as disaster unfolds on its home turf, the negative repercussions of the nation’s profligate consumption become more difficult to ignore. Inevitable mishaps stemming from increased domestic offshore drilling would only heighten this awareness, and might even shift public opinion more than the prices at gas pumps.

Watching the frantic and costly mitigation and recovery efforts for oil-smeared seas, ruined beaches, and dying wildlife should also stir a chilling realization within our souls. The very same coastal ecosystems now threatened by this oil slick (and many more) are also all but guaranteed to suffer far greater disruption from land subsidence and rising sea-levels later this century. Even if Deepwater Horizon’s crude is all contained and cleaned, the carbon dioxide already pumped into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels will continue to warm the world. The sea will respond with a vengeance, and the cherished places we fought so hard to save will gradually sink beneath the waves. Compared to the outcry over the present oil spill, the silence from pundits, politicians, and the public on this all-too-probable submerged future is deafening.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster could help here, too. In terms of the ongoing US policy debates, its occurrence is nothing less than fortuitous—an admonishing slap in the face for a lulled and lackadaisical polity. Recent congressional hearings on financial reform and Goldman Sachs’ “shitty deals,” as well as the passage of an inflammatory and unconstitutional immigration law in Arizona, shifted the Democratic leadership’s attention away from the pressing problems of climate change and energy. Consequently, landmark bipartisan climate and energy legislation is now floundering in the Senate. If passed and signed into law, the bill would, among other major reforms, set a price on carbon—a development that could significantly reduce emissions and soften the slide into a warmer, wetter world. It would be a good start. If as a society we still possess a shred of common sense and foresight, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and its aftermath will serve as a wake-up call on issues of climate and energy, and US elected representatives will, at long last, get the job done.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published April 30, 2010

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