Dolphins, Disasters and Decisions

by Paul Horsman

August 13, 2010

The cry goes out from the watch-keeper on the bridge of the Arctic Sunrise.  Those of us who could immediately rushed to the bow to watch dolphins careering along riding the bow wave as the Arctic Sunrise continues her journey at the start of this expedition looking at the possible impacts of BP’s oil spill.

We’d let go the lines fore and aft at 8.30 this morning and set off south towards Key west at the start of this three month expedition.  Most of the day had been uneventful, and I took the opportunity of getting back my sea-legs and getting to know the crew on board.  Even the most crusty sailor is still drawn to the magic of watching dolphins effortlessly riding the bow wave, weaving back and forth, over and around and occasionally leaping.

However throughout the day I thought about the start of the story that has led to me being here.  A story that started with an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April that killed 11 and oil began haemorrhaging from the sea floor a mile below the surface.  The early days of the spill were characterised by claims and counter-claims about the amount of oil that was spewing out from the broken well-head.  Initial claims actually said that there was no oil leaking as the blow-out preventers had worked.  This was quickly shown to be false.  And indeed later claims that only about 1000 tonnes was leaking each day were exposed as not true and subsequent estimates ranged up to 80,000 tonnes a day. 

Although the Deepwater Horizon was BP’s operation, it could easily have been Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Conoco – any of the oil companies.  So, this story is not just about BP, it is about the industry and its way of operating, it’s about the direction and development and it is about political leadership, regulators and vision for society.

As campaigners, we have warned of the dangers which oil developments pose – especially in the frontier areas like the deep water, or the Arctic.  The response of the industry as well as the regulators has always been to attempt to reassure everyone that they had all the emergency response plans in place if anything happened.  Whenever the spectre of the dangers and of dealing with an accident was raised, the industry and regulators would produce voluminous reports and environmental assessments; technical emergency response plans were churned out to demonstrate that they could deal with it.  This spill clearly demonstrates they could not.

With the source of the spill has thankfully capped and the relief well is nearing completion, reports are now being produced which spin a story that all is well, much of the oil has – almost magically – disappeared.  These appear desperate attempts to put the whole event onto a much lower level of concern. 

But it is important not to forget what happened here.  It is important to maintain the spotlight and pressure to expose what happens to the environment when, with government blessing, society continues to rely on dirty, dangerous, destructive sources of energy.  And the destruction of the environment, as well as livelihoods and communities which are the constant mark of the oil industry wherever in the world it operates, serves as a reminder that we must change.

And here, in the US, the world’s largest oil consumer and the world’s greatest per capita emitters of climate destabilising greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from using oil, coal and gas, the lessons are clear.  Either shift now, rapidly to invest in clear renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency programmes, that can boost the economy, create green jobs and ensure economic as well as environmental security.  Or else, others will take the lead and America will have to follow.  The choice is clear, only visionary leadership is the mission.  Surely America Can do it? 

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