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Oil Spin

As oil threatens the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the rationalizations, dubious information and spin about the Gulf blowout flow.

In insisting that the blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig should not deter off-shore oil drilling, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said on the Senate floor Friday: “I don’t believe we should retreat.”

Ten days before the blowout occurred and, as she spoke, it was threatening massive environmental and economic damage including to her home state.

She gave the huge oil slick in the Gulf a rainbow hue. “What’s important about this sheen is that 97% of it is a rainbow sheen,” she said in the Senate. “Only 3% contains emulsified crude…So it is important to understand that, while this is an unprecedented disaster—the oil slick is wide and covers a large section of ocean—97% of it is an extremely thin sheen of relatively light oil on the surface.”

She repeated her call that there be no “retreat” on offshore oil drilling in media appearances including, on Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Host Bob Schieffer might have asked Senator Landrieu whether her position had anything to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions she receives annually from the oil industry.

If a Face the Nation producer had done a Google search, reports would be found such as  on SourceWatch: “Mary Landrieu has received $252,950 in oil contributions during the 110th Congress. $163,000 of those were from industry PACS. In total, Landrieu has accepted $574,000 from oil companies from 2000 to 2008, which makes her one of the highest recipients {in Congress] of oil money.”

She did acknowledge in her Senate speech that she is “an unabashed proponent of the [oil] industry.” She just didn’t explain the financial arrangement.

As to the claim of the situation being “unprecedented,” which has been widely asserted— in terms of the depth of the sea in which the rig was positioned and also the volume of oil gushing from a mile down, it is unprecedented.

But blowouts and consequent spills from offshore oil rigs—including those in the Gulf of Mexico—are not uncommon.

Indeed, last year there was a blowout, strikingly similar to what just happened in the Gulf, involving the West Atlas drilling rig in the Timor Sea off northwest Australia. The oil slick formed extended for more than 100 miles; it took 10 weeks for the blow-out to be brought under control; marine life was impacted and shores blackened.

“If anything like the Australian blowout ever takes places off of the Southeast U.S. beaches or in Florida waters, the economic and environmental consequences will last for decades,” said Richard Charter speaking for Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife at the time.

Of that spill, he said: “A global-scale environmental catastrophe so large that it is visible from space is unfolding in one of the earth’s last marine wilderness areas.”

The West Atlas rig was in water 260-feet deep. It took five attempts before heavy mud pumped down a relief well was able to move into the well that underwent the blowout on August 21 and cork the leak.

The reality is that wherever there’s oil drilling, there’s spilling. U.S. Department of Interior figures reflect 3 million gallons of oil spilled from 1980 to 1999 in the U.S. outer continental shelf offshore drilling program. As to blowouts, there were 18 in wells in the Gulf of Mexico from 1983 up to the eruption at the Deepwater Horizon rig.

President Obama led those who would claim offshore drilling can be conducted safely when, Friday, he rejected calls from environmentalists to cancel planned lease sales by the Department of Interior for drilling in the Mid-Atlantic, eastern Gulf of Mexico and off northern Alaska but said he wanted to see new “safeguards.” The notion of new “safeguards” in a process that always results in spilled oil is a pipe dream.

As the late Red Adair, who specialized in trying to cap oil well blow-outs, said: “You can take all the precautions in the world” and spills “still happen.”

An especially sunny view of the Gulf spill came from a U.S. Coast Guard officer quoted in a LiveScience.com article on April 29.: “As for what happens to the ‘dispersed oil’ that doesn’t get skimmed off or burned off or otherwise collected, ‘We’re told it disperses naturally. It eventually breaks up and evaporates. There are different ways, but we’re told it just kind of goes away.’” the officer said. Really?

Meanwhile, there is the spin that despite the damage it causes, we just “need” to do offshore oil drilling. “The Spill Vs. a Need to Drill,” was the lead story of the “Week in Review” section of the New York Times Sunday.

The blowout at an offshore drilling rig off Santa Barbara, California “marked a turning point in the oil industry’s expansion shelving any chance for drilling along most of the nation’s coastlines,” wrote reporter Jad Mouawad. “Is history about to repeat itself in the Gulf of Mexico?”

“It may seem so this weekend,” he stated. “Emotions are running high as an oil slick washes over the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem, threatening fisheries, shrimp farmers and perhaps even Florida’s tourism industry.”

“But whatever the magnitude of the spill at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig,” reported Mouawad, “it is unlikely to seriously impede offshore drilling in the Gulf. This country needs the oil—and the jobs.”

His article ended with a quote from Samuel Thernstrom of the right-wing, staunchly pro-business American Enterprise Institute: “A fossil-fuel free future isn’t inconceivable but it is decades away.”

Who says? There have been numerous studies concluding that if the United States put the resources into implementing clean, safe—and fossil-fuel free—energy technologies available today, in relatively short order we would drastically reduce oil consumption.

For the oil industry—and its supporters—accepting the inextricable link between offshore oil drilling and spillage and its consequent environmental damage “is a way of doing business,” explains Long Island University environmental Studies Professor Ralph Herbert. “They know accidents are going to happen. They just rationalize that away. They say, ‘It never happened before, it’s unprecedented, it’s unique,’ and, meantime, they know it’s an ongoing situation. With a big disaster like this, they’re caught with their pants down. It’s a failure of the market system to incorporate the real costs of oil and use of fossils fuels. This doesn’t happen and wouldn’t happen with wind and solar.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, issued a statement over the weekend saying that Obama is “correct” in saying BP “is responsible for this spill. But the government bears responsibility, too, as it failed to protect U.S. waters and the people who depend on them. Offshore oil drilling is inherently dirty and dangerous. In order to fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizens and territory, the government must establish a permanent moratorium on offshore drilling.”

With the oil industry spending many millions of dollars a year on lobbying and political contributions—see the Center for Public Integrity’s “Big Oil Protects Its Interests” — can this happen?

In the face of the devastation in the Gulf, it should.

KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.

WORDS THAT STICK

 

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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