Truth Spill: Gulf Disaster Brings Home the Real Costs of Fossil Fuels

James K. Boyce

An upside-down faucet, just open and running out.” That’s how an oil-spill expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute describes the massive release of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico that began April 20th at British Petroleum’s Deep Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. [See live video feed of the spill here.]

The disaster has opened an information faucet, too: every day, more truth about the real costs of fossil fuels is emptying into public view. Desperate efforts to control both spills are underway.

After its 450-ton blowout preventer failed, BP tried burning the oil slick, creating the macabre spectacle of the ocean on fire.

The company then tried using chemical dispersants to reduce the oil reaching the surface, a strategy that helped to create enormous underwater oil plumes – as much as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick – now floating toward the powerful loop current that could “slingshot the oil into the Atlantic Ocean around the Florida Keys” and threaten the eastern seaboard. The dispersants themselves are toxic, but their impacts on marine ecosystems are poorly understood because the chemical recipe is a proprietary secret.

In exploration plans filed with the government’s ethically-challenged Minerals Management Service in February 2009, BP claimed it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities,” and that if this happened, “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.” So far, oil has washed onto 65 miles of Louisiana’s shoreline, penetrating more than 10 miles into the coastal marshes that account for 40% of the wetlands in the continental United States. Fishing has been banned in 19% of Gulf waters under U.S. jurisdiction – a devastating blow to local livelihoods.

Containing the truth spill is proving as difficult as plugging the gusher. In the wake of the spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward launched a public relations campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of the people. A predictable apologist on Fox News claimed that natural seepage puts more oil into the ocean than accidents, and Rush Limbaugh asserted that oil is “as natural as the ocean water.” The New York Times reminded its readers that “America needs the oil.” All bring to mind what the late John Kenneth Galbraith once called “the effort to make pollution seem palatable or worth the cost.”

But the truth is swamping these efforts. Each day brings new revelations about the magnitude of the disaster. Even Fox News reports that it “could be much worse than we knew.” Experts estimate the rupture at 40,000-100,000 barrels per day, far above BP’s claim of 5,000 barrels. “It is clear BP has been lying,” concludes Congressman Ed Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

The bad news about fossil fuels is not limited to the Gulf. “All oil comes from someone’s backyard,” observes Lisa Margonelli in The New York Times, noting that “Nigeria has suffered spills equivalent to that of the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969.” Recent mine disasters in West Virginia, Russia and China underscore the real costs of coal. Mining of Canadian tar sands, now the most important source of U.S. oil imports, is chopping into the world’s largest boreal forest and creating sludge ponds “so toxic that the companies try to frighten birds away with scarecrows and propane cannons.”

In the best-case scenario – with no accidents and minimal environmental damage from extraction – burning fossil fuels “only” emits greenhouse gases that threaten future generations, together with co-pollutants that lead to roughly 20,000 premature deaths annually in the United States, according to a 2009 National Academy of Sciences study.

As the real costs of fossil fuels become more apparent, support grows for the clean energy transition. “The disaster in the Gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil,” President Obama said last Friday, “our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”  If the Gulf disaster accelerates this transition, it will not have been entirely in vain.