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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

BP Oilpocalypse Threatens New Orleans’s Very Existence

05/14/10

Steve Wereley [of] . . . Purdue University, told NPR the actual spill rate of the BP oil disaster is about 3 million gallons a day—15 times the official guess of BP and the federal government. . . . Eugene Chiang . . . [of] the University of California, Berkeley, calculated the rate of flow to be between 840,000 and four million gallons a day. These estimates mean that the Deepwater Horizon wreckage could have spilled about five times as much oil as the 12-million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster, with relief only guaranteed by BP in three more months.  Experts: BP Disaster Spilling the Equivalent of Two Exxon Valdezes a Week” | ThinkProgress.org

We have a dream—and it may sound wicked, but its cause is just.

If our wish could come true, the “volcano of oil” unleashed by BP would be driven eastward by ocean currents out of the Gulf of Mexico, loop around the pristine shores of Florida, and sweep up the Atlantic seaboard, hovering offshore just close enough to terrorize and activate the American public and elected officials to finally swear off the national addiction to oil. Let the nation get a taste of what’s sickening Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

As long as we’re visualizing a targeted spread of two Exxon Valdezes per week’s worth of oil, we’d like to see it hovering like an evil genie from a lamp and dripping, dripping malodorously down on the homes and finely manicured lawns of all politicians who have accepted campaign contributions from the oil industry for their votes favoring lax regulations, expanded drilling rights, and low or no royalty revenues for Louisiana.

Fellow Americans who benefit from Gulf Coast oil, it’s time to push Congress and governors to begin developing of alternative energy sources, electric cars, and massive investment in public transportation. (The U.S. is already deep in debt for oil-driven wars, so let’s shift gears and spend instead on immediate national security + new jobs.)

Everyone (almost) is already worried about the Big Spill’s damage to the livelihood of Gulf Coast fishermen and related businesses and the threat to birds, fish, oysters, shellfish, and other coastal fauna. Dead dolphins and sea turtles are pathetic and sickening. But also stomach-turning, terrifying—and possibly fatal to New Orleans—is the fact that the BP “oilpocalypse” is killing the sea grass and other vegetation in the already imperiled, already dwindling Louisiana wetlands that serve as a buffer against hurricanes’ storm surge.

Here’s how it works: Every 2.5 to 4 miles of wetlands reduce hurricane storm surges by about a foot; measured another way, each mile of marsh reduces storm surges by 3 to 9 inches. To protect against the awesome 25- to 30-foot storm surges brought by massive cyclones like Katrina and the Category 5 Hurricane Camille in 1969, for safety southern Louisiana would want (in addition to the barrier islands that have all but washed away) about 50 to 75 miles of wetlands between the Gulf of Mexico and the city of New Orleans. But metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

America, This Is Your Wake-Up Call

The entire nation enjoys the benefits of oil and natural gas exploration and development that has ravaged the delicate wetlands of coastal Louisiana. Since the late 1920s, some 10,000 miles of oil and natural gas pipeline canals and navigation channels have been cut across lower Louisiana. These pipelines carry 18 percent of oil and 24 percent of natural gas supplies for the U.S.—good for America—but they trigger erosion: salt water burns the delicate marsh grass, and wave-action erosion beats the dying grass and roots to pieces. As the swamp grass dies, the roots decompose, lose their grip on the soil, and the marshy ground crumbles and sinks into seawater. Because of the incursion of salt water, the canals tend to double their width every 14 years. Scientists at LSU estimate that at least one-third of coastal erosion is directly attributable to these industrial canals. Now, if salt water kills the marsh grass, what does oil do to it?

And if the storm surge buffer erodes completely, what happens to New Orleans?

But We’re Not Dead Yet

We’ve all heard some version of the story of the starving prisoner who eats his hand, then his wrist, then as far up his arm as he can gnaw. Such self-sacrifice might appear the only option for survival in extremis, but somehow we don’t see humankind as prepared to sacrifice its very existence—certainly not in order to pay ever-escalating prices at the pump so that BP and ExxonMobil and other oil firms can continue their unprecedented profits.

The present administration in the White House and the Democratic majority in Congress is more sympathetic to alternative energy development than their recent predecessors, but still they will only act boldly for energy reform if the public loudly and repeatedly demands it. Already New Jersey senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez have proposed raising the limit of oil companies’ liability from $75 million to $10 billion (it’s a start, as BP ads used to say), and senators in California, Oregon, and Washington have proposed a permanent ban on all future drilling off the Pacific coast. (See Washington senator Maria Cantwell interviewed by Rachel Maddow.)

Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman this week—just in time!—released a bill called the American Power Act. Kerry and Lieberman’s Power Act (with contributions from Senator Lindsey Graham, who should be invited back into the effort) will bring down carbon pollution, tighten laws on offshore drilling, push new investments in clean energy research & production, and more! (Read further details here and here.)

Please, dear readers, study up on the issue and phone or e-mail members of the Senate Energy Committee. If you want changes to the Power Act, tell the committee members what you want. Here is the link to the White House; the President’s phone number is 202-456-1111. See our Political Action page for more contact info.

In an editorial today on the Kerry-Lieberman Power Act titled “While the Senate Fiddles,” the New York Times says:

. . . the bill has no chance unless President Obama steps up. Mr. Obama pledged to “engage” with the Senate to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill “this year.” This was one of those ticket-punching statements that isn’t going to change any minds. What he should have said is that he is going to hammer on the Senate until it does what this country needs.

So please join us in telling Obama to get behind this like he means it: “hammer on the Senate until it does what this country needs.” Tell the President and Congress (not just once but over and over) it’s time to outlaw offshore drilling, invest like serious adults in alternative energies and public transportation while subsidizing development of electric cars, and, while they’re at it, fire the permissive “monitors” at the Minerals Management Service. We like Interior secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to reorganize the MMS by separating the regulation and enforcement functions from the oil exploration promotion and royalty collection part.

As Senator Cantwell says, it’s time to start migrating off of oil and onto other sources of energy. We as a nation, as a species, as a planet, can no longer afford the oil addiction. We can no longer afford the indifference to safety regulations—we never could—and now we see what it brings us. Dead dolphins, idle fishermen, oil-stained beaches, and a further-endangered great American city—an entire region and people and wildlife—that have already suffered too much.

Further Reading

Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say

Odd Smells in New Orleans Conjure Up Thoughts of the Gulf

Kerry-Lieberman Climate Bill: The Details (Grist.org)

Kerry-Lieberman Climate Bill: Key Points (Huffington Post)

LaCoastPost scuttlebutt (“all things coastal”)

WhiteHouse.gov blog on oil spill response

New York Times digest + articles list about BP oil spill

NYT DotEarth enviro blog



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