Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oil Hemorrhaging from the Gulf

Transcript of today's For the Birds:

Oil Hemorrhage
On April 20, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people outright, injured others, and sent oil hemorrhaging into the sea from the drill site. This happened two days before Earth Day, and four days before the 21st anniversary of the day the Exxon Valdez, a single-hulled oil tanker, crashed into Prince William Sound, spilling at least 10.8 million gallons of oil into what had been pristine waters. The Valdez was carrying over 55 million gallons of oil, and although the 10.8 million gallon figure determined Exxon’s liability, Defenders of Wildlife claims that significantly more that that was actually spilled. Either way, Exxon’s spill has almost always been cited as the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history until now. Shipping disasters and oil rig blowouts have happened many times before. Both these American disasters were predictable, and both were preventable.

Two and a half years before the Valdez crash, on Dec. 15, 1976, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, the Argo Merchant ran aground and broke apart southeast of Nantucket Island, spilling its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil. We’d long known that so much oil being carried in a single-hull tanker was at huge risk of being released into the oceans, and over 100 countries have since banned the use of single-hull tankers in their waters, but the U.S.’s response was to continue to allow their use until 2015—and despite the sinking of the Valdez, Exxon continues to use these vulnerable ships even now, saving a relatively tiny amount of money to remain the richest corporation in the universe.

In April, 1977, the blowout of a well in an oil field in the Norwegian waters of the North Sea, leaked 81 million gallons. In response, Norwegians now impose strict standards for safety on these rigs. In 1979, another oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Ixtoc 1, blew out, gushing an estimated 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. This rig was operated by Mexico, so even though oil reached the Texas shore and affected American fisherman and killed birds that spend part of their lives in the United States along with fish and wildlife that swim in our waters, the oil industry and our official accounts never include this as an American disaster. The oil industry claims that the environmental effects were minimal, bizarre evidence that we’re willing to take the word of the oil industry whenever they manage to hide the damage that they do from the American media.

The term “oil spill” is so deeply entrenched in our jargon that it’s usually the term being used to describe what is happening in the Gulf today. The Exxon Valdez ship, huge as it was, held a finite amount of oil. The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day now isn’t from the contents of a ship—it’s hemorrhaging from an undersea oil bed, and no one has any idea how much will gush out before the well is stopped. Even compared to Ixtoc 1, BP’s blowout has easily become the hugest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Our birds—some of the species we northlanders hold especially dear, including hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, and warblers—migrate over the open waters of the Gulf or along the shoreline en route to and from their tropical wintering grounds. One hundred percent of the wild migratory Whooping Cranes—both the ones that breed in Canada and the ones introduced in Wisconsin and taught to migrate by following an Ultralight aircraft—winter along the Gulf and depend for their survival on blue crabs. And right now huge numbers of birds, from enormous Brown Pelicans to tiny shorebirds, are dead or dying. Yet BP, the criminally negligent company that caused this gusher in the first place, has been preventing wildlife rehabbers, including their own volunteers, from getting access to the vast majority of oiled birds, and the Obama administration is still allowing them to call the shots. When the explosion occurred, I was too numb to speak out about it. But no longer. This week For the Birds will highlight what is happening in the Gulf, with accounts by ornithologists and bird rehabbers about the devastation to birds it is already causing, how much worse the situation will grow as fall migration and hurricane season kick in, and how this horrifying disaster will affect northland birds for years to come.