Spewing oil raises questions for us all

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2010

As I write this, the oil is still spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

"I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing," notes David Kennedy, a scientist on the scene with the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration.

But how big, and how devastating? It is only just beginning to reach shore? It is still spewing 200,000 gallons a day? This has all the makings of a tragedy that will eclipse the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

What will come of this horrific accident? Will we just demand that BP bear the cost of cleanup and harm? Will we clamor for more regulatory oversight? More importantly, I wonder if the finger of blame will point inward at who we are as a society of oil consumers, and if we'll make profound shifts in our attitudes and policies, which such a lingering disaster deserves.

Many consider the publicity surrounding the oil spill a major impetus to the environmental movement. Will the Gulf spill take us to the next level of environmental stewardship? It is too early to say because the tragedy is still unfolding.

However, it is not too early to start the process of open questioning. As I watch the ecological and economic disaster unfold on the evening news, I am reminded of that Pogo cartoon which captured our nascent environmental awareness in the 1970s ... "We have met the enemy and it is us."

It is all of us Americans consuming oil at a rate of 69 barrels per day for every 1,000 people (2007 figures). This is 2.3 times the average of the European Union and 3.4 times the amount of oil that Russia consumes. While other countries consume oil a rates higher than the United States, we are right up there as far as being oil gluttons.

The Gulf spill also taints our trust that technology can deliver us free and clear. The trust was so compelling for many Americans that chants of "Drill Baby Drill" took over the political debate on energy. BP once downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at an offshore rig. The Associated Press reports than in its 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well, BP suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals.

Now we have Shell Oil defending their exploratory leases in the Arctic by arguing in court that they have made extensive plans that include dealing with the "remote and infinitesimal likelihood of a spill." I know drilling in shallow waters is different than drilling 5,000 below the ocean, but is it really true that spills are remote and unlikely? Should we not question the adequacy of our technology when drilling for oil offshore? And in the Arctic where ice, stormy seas and remoteness is the norm, do we really have the technology to clean up a spill in ice-laden waters?

As an Alaskan dependent on oil for heating my home and fueling my car, I know this horrific accident does not mean we can or should start living without oil today. But it does mean we should move as rapidly as possible toward alternative fuels and clean energy solutions.

We need to wean ourselves from foreign oil, but perhaps the better solution is using less. All we have to do is look to Europe to know that our developed economy can still thrive on less oil.

For change to be sustainable, it must begin at home as individual consumers. We need to burn less, question assurances of safe and infallible technology and support legislation that moves us away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future. Then and only then will the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf of Mexico be the painful lessons that set us on a path of sustainable energy.

• Kate Troll served on the Board of Directors for United Fishermen of Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

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