Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery
white sands of Florida's beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of
The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really screwed up. News reports and even songs, including Randy Newman's "Burn On," about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness--I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the burning river over in Cleveland.
Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United
States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices. Earth Day was also launched within a year
and a potent social moment was hatched. The
Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation
in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight
agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent
industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated
regulations. One of the first cities the
agency "went after" when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its
We are facing the nation's worst environmental disaster, and it is becoming visceral. Models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle, toward South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don't be surprised to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in real life.
"The smell is the worst thing," said NBC correspondent Anne Thompson Friday. "Until you smell it, you haven't experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses and chocolate syrup and it just stinks."
As Pensacola's famed white beaches are besieged by toxic fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average Americans are coming in, and they're not pretty.
In the world's consciousness, it's one thing to have oil wash up on a coastal Louisiana "swamp"--though scientists and the fishing industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary wetlands for their existence. It's quite another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the beach, which endangers the Southeast's tourism and fishing industries, along with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their livelihood.
What will happen next? I wrote on early April 29 that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy, consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.
Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course priority number one. Sunday some 10,000 barrels of oil a day were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil still spewing.
Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:
- The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry, the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants, plumbers, etc.) that could be impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough estimate below, there could be an economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:
· Gulf Coast commercial fish products $6.5 billion Total--$2-3 billion impact?
Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast share of $42
billion Total US recreational fishing equipment expenditures: $2 billion impact?
· Gulf Coast $100 billion tourism industry Total --$30-50 billion impact?
· Florida beach-related tourism $42 billion Total--$10 billion impact?
· Florida recreational fishing $5.4 billion Total--$1-2 billion impact?
· Florida commercial fishing: $5.5 billion Total--$1-2 billion impact?
· Florida boating industry $18 billion Total:--$3-4 billion impact?
· Georgia coastal tourism $2 billion Total--$.5 billion impact?
South Carolina coastal tourism Total $6.5
billion--$1-2 billion impact?
· North Carolina coastal tourism Total $4 billion (estimate)--$1 billion impact?
· Regional services associated with tourism?
· Impact on Ecosystem services (wetlands that clean water, vegetation including mangroves that provide flood and hurricane buffer zones)--incalculable?
Heath Care costs for workers, and residents impact
by air and water quality?
Such "full cost" accounting is now more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental and societal impacts.
- US subsidies to oil companies--some $15 to $35 billion a year--need to be curtailed, and transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.
- The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS's relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to reform. "Obviously, we're all part of the oil industry," one MMS official said to investigators who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff and oil officials. The feds need to create a completely independent oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy. The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
- Higher-vehicle mileage and alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the development of more biofuel-burning engines that don't use food as a fuel source.
- Can this finally be the time in our history when "recreational" cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms--at least oil and gas burning machines--stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air pollution, and water pollution from runoff. Measures should be instituted so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
- The United States needs to consider less-polluting domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed natural gas. Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can--if used for transportation--can offset some of the need for risky deepwater drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local water supplies, and such activities need to be monitored closely).
- Here's the most obvious yet least discussed solution in public or the media. Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will reduce automobile dependence. Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States, with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities, which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes, plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?) transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping, entertainment and errands.
It is time to face the sobering truth.
We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until, we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific than BP's gusher.
Denial and guilt, combined with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent community planning--walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public transit.
It's time to step up the post-oil conversation while implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and our nation have their work cut out for them: there is a need to clean up not just beaches, Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.
The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let's link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster news-of-the-day.
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 and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.