Greenpeace visits the Oil Spill Commission

by John Hocevar

August 25, 2010

Greenpeace image John Hocevar testifies at Oil Spill CommissionToday, the Oil Spill Commission is holding a day full of hearings here in Washington DC.

The Commission, charged with developing recommendations to ensure that the disastrous BP Horizon spill is never repeated, is hearing from a range of oil company reps and federal officials, with a few other voices sprinkled in here and there.

During testimony by Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Greenpeace activists held up a banner reminding the Commissioners and federal officials that safe offshore drilling is a pipe dream.

Greenpeace image oil spill commission hearing Jane Lubchenko

Later, I testified on behalf of Greenpeace — the text of my comments are included below.

For the oceans,

John H

Greenpeace Testimony to the National Commission on the BP Horizon Deepwater Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

My name is John Hocevar, and I’m a marine biologist with Greenpeace, an environmental organization with nearly three million members worldwide.

In a report released earlier this month, the Obama administration declared that 74% of oil from the BP oil spill has evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed. EPA Administrator Carol Browner, told us that “The vast majority of the oil is gone.” The head of NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, responded to reports questioning the government’s findings as “a tempest in a teapot.”

As noted by scientists from Woods Hole, the University of Georgia, and elsewhere, however, the government’s conclusions are somewhere between wishful thinking and outright spin. The fact is that even this report acknowledges that no more than a quarter has been recovered. A bit more has evaporated, leaving somewhere between 3 and 4 million barrels of oil still in the Gulf and on the shorelines of FL, LA, MS, and AL. The equivalent of more than 10 Exxon Valdez oil spills is still out there.

And while dispersed or dissolved oil is no longer in the same form as when it was released from the wellhead, it’s still there, and still causing problems that are poorly understood but likely to be serious and often persistent.

Pie charts aside, we know that the Gulf will be feeling the effects of this disaster long after the oil disappears from the human eye. Despite the fact that the wellhead appears to have been capped, we must redouble efforts to understand the true impacts of this catastrophe. There is no question that some of the oil is being broken down by bacteria, but this eats up a lot of oxygen. How is this process affecting the Gulf dead zone that plagues the Gulf each summer?

The impact on commercially and recreationally important fish stocks is another huge concern, but so far remains largely unknown. Of further concern is the impact on Gulf food webs. Oil and dispersant has been observed in plankton, which moves quickly up the food chain to whales and sea birds. Even more poorly understood is the impact on the deep sea. Cold water coral reefs and the sponges and anemones of the sea floor provide habitat for many species, but very, very little exploration has yet been done to investigate the health of this critical part of the Gulf ecosystem.

These are many questions that still need answers in the wake of this disaster. That’s why the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise has embarked on a three-month expedition to support independent scientists’ efforts to research the impacts to the Gulf’s ecosystem and marine life. We will be collaborating with researchers from more than a dozen universities to assess the scope of this disaster and the impacts to marine life from the plankton near the surface to the subsurface plumes, from whales and turtles to deep sea corals at the bottom of the Gulf.

What is clear at this stage is that where we have offshore drilling, we have risk of serious accidents that can neither be cleaned up nor quickly recovered from – either ecologically or economically. As this Commission assesses appropriate responses to the BP Horizon disaster, Greenpeace urges you to recommend a ban on new offshore drilling, beginning with the extremely risky operations planned for the remote and pristine waters of the Arctic. This disaster has revealed the limitations of the oil industry and the government’s abilities to control a spill, even in relatively manageable conditions of the Gulf of Mexico. In the treacherous Arctic, a blowout in a scenario where a relief well cannot be completed in the same drilling season could lead to oil gushing until at least next spring, with oil becoming trapped under sheets of thick ice. The Coast Guard has called a spill in the Arctic a “nightmare scenario” for which they lack the capacity to respond. Ultimately, we need a sincere and comprehensive effort to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

I also urge you to you to take urgent steps to safeguard the beleaguered marine life of the Gulf. Your leadership is needed in establishing a network of large-scale marine reserves to protect ecologically vital areas in the Gulf of Mexico. We must identify and protect critical foraging areas, spawning grounds migratory routes, and other important areas. Closing large portions of the Gulf to fishing, drilling, and other extractive industry will help provide a buffer in the event of future spills, and will increase the resiliency of areas that have already been impacted.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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