You probably do not know this, but every week for the last couple of months, I have been writing this blog from an off-site location in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. It is currently January in New Orleans and despite a few cold days during the Polar Vortex, the winter weather here (or lack thereof) has been pleasant. It is also the time of year when some of our seafood, particularly our oysters, are at their biggest and best. But seafood is always in season on the Gulf of Mexico and it is both a staple of local cuisine and a livelihood for many fishermen. You will understand then that whenever the British Petroleum oil spill is in the news, the folks in New Orleans are paying attention.
Currently, the BP oil spill is making headlines in the news because the company is back in court, in New Orleans, protesting certain terms of its reparations agreement. When I say “back in court”, it is important to keep in mind that some of the money that BP has agreed to pay was voluntary, and some of it was award to claims recipients when several US states took BP to court. BP’s complaint is, essentially, that the terms of the settlement do not protect them from false and exaggerated claims.
It is certainly not my place to comment on the all the legalities of BP’s original settlement and current appeal, but this is a moment when we can all reflect on this tragic environmental disaster and “check up” how things have gone in restoring the environment and economy since 2010. To do this, one of the most convenient resources is, of course, the BP restoration website. While the BP restoration website probably gives the most optimistic account of the company’s effort, they are far from admitting that the cleanup and repairs are anywhere close to finished. In fact, the first thing you see on the website is a statement reporting that “We continue to make significant progress cleaning the Gulf shoreline and supporting economic and environmental recovery in affected areas. Our goal is to provide a positive legacy in these coastal communities.”
One thing that the ongoing BP cleanup reminds us of is the severity of the oil spill’s impact. On the one hand, there are many immediate and obvious effects of the spill, and it is likely that those effects have been given some attention. However, with environmental disasters of this scale, there are longterm impacts that are not always visible and these take longterm study to assess and address. For example, one newspaper reports that “21 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster it is estimated that 21,000 gallons of oil still remain just below the surface of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the long term environmental effects on the area have far exceeded scientists’ original predictions.” The same is likely to be true in the Gulf and that is to say nothing of all the additional chemicals (dispersants) that have ben used to cleanup the oil.
Of course, we expect that restoration will take time, even as the disaster fades from the public consciousness. However, we should be reminded here that given the long term, and often unforeseeable, effects of such large-scale disasters, a “complete restoration” is probably never to be achieved. We should also be reminded, as no complete restoration is likely a reality, that foresight and the avoidance of such accidents is the only real solution. And this is not merely a safety issue, but a question of fossil fuels, commerce, and the sustainability of our planet.
Image taken from the National Geographic Gulf Oil Spill Pictures