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
“The smell is the worst thing,” said NBC correspondent Anne
“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
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
Florida beach-related tourism $42 billion Total–$10
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
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
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
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
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.