Gulf Oil Crisis, Porn and the Burning Cuyahoga


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
burning river.

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

What will happen next?  I wrote on early April

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:

  1. 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
–$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
–$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.   

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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

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

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.


Oil Spill may be worse than Exxon Valdez


As I Twittered early this morning, the BP Gulf oil spill now has the potential to become larger than the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, devastating the Alaskan fishing industry and state’s economy.

The Exxon Valdez spill resulted in an estimated $5 to 7 billion dollars (in 1989 dollars) of damage over a two-year period (shore clean-up below).


The fire-caused break and leak of BP’s oil well is blasting a now-estimated 210,000 gallons a day (5,000 barrels) into the Gulf deep under 5,000 feet of water. An attempted controlled burn of the oil is occurring before the oil is forecast to hit the wetlands and beaches of the Gulf Coast tonight or tomorrow.

A BP spokesperson said on the McNeil News Hour this afternoon that the UK corporation will be sending two ships to drill nearby relief wells. The wells will take up to 90 days to get in place, meaning 18,900,000 gallons of oil may spill in the meantime–almost twice the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident.

Look for the event to have major consequences on US energy and disaster-response policy, the Gulf fishing and tourism economies in up to five states (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida), and wildlife. The economies of New Orleans; Biloxi, MS; Mobile, AL; and Pensacola, FL, and Panama City, FL, are the communities most vulnerable to the spill.

Oil prices and the debate about a potential coming 2014-2015 energy crunch may also flare up with this tragic event. Already, 11 lives of workers were lost on the offshore rig when it blew up.

Drilling for oil under such enormous and biologically sensitive areas like the Gulf Coast is a reality that is occurring to meet the demands of the current global economy.

Without new sources of renewable energy, better planning and comprehensive clean energy policy and clean tech job creation, the Gulf and many of our nation’s (and our planet’s) waters, our coastal communities, and marine and shore animal-bird populations will be at severe risk, as easy-to-drill oil becomes less and less available.

In the meantime, there will be an acute need to drill even deeper, in more sensitive places and to drill almost everywhere, until we diminish our global addiction to oil.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post


Militants Capture Nigerian Oil: Global Price, Energy Policy Impacts?

chevron militants.jpg

Chevron’s Nigerian oil pipeline has been overtaken by the Movement for the Emancipation of Nigeria in the Niger Delta (above: AFP/File Photo). The group is obviously well-armed and trained. See the lead machine gunner supplied by ammunition/communications (left), and flanked by AK-47s and rocket launcher holders (left rear, right rear) scanning the horizon of Niger River, which has pipeline, production and transport facilities (Niger River Delta and Nigerian offshore oil areas are in yellow below).


The Niger Delta has been the source of about 2.5 to 3% of world oil supply and reserves, with Shell, Exxon, BP and others holding major delta and offshore concessions.

Multi-national oil companies have been open flaring oil wells 24 hours a day into the air, and causing extensive water pollution in the area once home to rich fishing and agriculture.
Thus the region is growing infamous for impacted civilian uprisings, peaceful and not so.

Said the governor of Nigeria’s Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan: “…the
oil companies have polluted the air, the waters and soil….So, with this kind of situation, our people can no longer
fish or farm and so they can no longer feed themselves, the capacity to
do this is no longer there and when you cannot feed yourself, you are
hungry and when you are hungry, you get angry and when you are angry,
you get violent. So, it is a vicious cycle…We want to create a Delta
State without oil…We should be able to create a Nigerian economy
without oil, bring our youth up and train them to become farmers and
non-violent producers”.

Nigerian novelist and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa was hung after military trial in 1995, concerning demonstrations by the Ogoni group he founded, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Before the news of the Chevron pipeline takeover, oil markets were already heating up Friday to almost $83 a barrel, the highest range since October 2008, after hitting their historic peak of $147 a barrel in July 2008. Based on Nigeria and increased demand from China, this week could be be a harbinger for 2010 oil price trends.

Are rising oil prices and energy insecurity putting the issue of future global fossil fuel supply in play once more?