Oil Oil Everywhere

by Melanie Duchin

February 27, 2008

I live in Anchorage, Alaska, and this morning, during my morning ritual of stoking the wood stove and  reading the Anchorage Daily News, I was struck by the convergence of so many issues that have to do with oil.

On the front page of this morning’s newspaper is an article about a remote village in northwest Alaska, Kivalina, that is suing Exxon and other big oil companies because of global warming >>  Kivalina is one of many villages on the coast of arctic Alaska that is  protected from winter storms by sea ice. Sea ice tamps down waves and prevents them from pummeling the shoreline. Global warming now means the sea ice forms later in the year, melts earlier, and as a result, villages such as Kivalina are being ravaged by winter storms that threaten their very existence.  Villages will have to relocate, but relocation will cost hundreds of millions of dollar per village, and where is the money going to come from? And even if a village is re-located, how will the community handle being moved from its traditional hunting and fishing grounds? Kivalina believes Exxon and its oil industry allies have engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to undermine climate science and block real action to stop global warming.

There is also a story about how today, almost 19 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound, the Supreme Court will hear a case about whether Exxon Mobil should have to pay punitive damages to the people who suffered and are still suffering the effects of that spill >> Almost two decades since the Valdez disaster—two decades that have witnessed the highest profits ever earned by any company anywhere– and Exxon’s still fighting to avoid responsibility.  One of the key questions the Supreme Court will consider is if Exxon Mobil should be held accountable for the actions of its Captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who was drunk when the supertanker ran aground.  As far as I’m concerned, the spill had nothing to do with Joseph Hazelwood’s addiction, it was caused by this country’s addiction to oil.  Yes, Exxon Mobil should be held accountable, finally and should have to pay through the nose for what it did. However, I am dismayed to hear little or nothing about how the country’s oil addiction has only worsened since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on March 24, 1989.  Big oil is making record profits for a reason.  We have met the enemy, and he is us.  We’re not doing enough to curb our addiction to oil, and there is certainly more that we can do to pressure our elected officials to wake up and smell the petroleum.

And at the same time, the Chukchi Lease Sale is in the news.  The Chukchi Sea is shared between Alaska and Russia. It is remote, hostile, and home to half the US population of polar bears. The Chukchi Sea is also in the cross hairs of the federal government that wants to open it up to oil drilling.  Oil companies have been salivating for decades at the prospect of oil drilling this vast, untouched part of the Alaska coast.  Up until now, it’s been too costly to seriously consider oil drilling in the Chukchi. But now that Alaska crude oil has reached the milestone of $100 per barrel >>, drilling in the Chukchi is a reality. 

Our federal government sold off tracts in the Chukchi Sea in early February, the tracts closest to the shore are 25 miles away, meaning risky sub-sea pipeline technology will be used to transport oil from drilling platforms in an area that is covered by ice for much of the year. The government estimates about a 40 percent chance – just slightly better than 50/50– of a major oil spill from these leases. There is little possibility of any effective spill response in this part of the world given it is covered by solid or broken ice for much of the year.  And while the oil industry says it can safely drill offshore, its record debunks that assertion as hogwash, to put it mildly. Several spills from offshore platforms have been as large or larger than the Exxon Valdez spill — the Ekofisk in the North Sea, Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico, Funiwa No. 5 off Nigeria, among many other offshore disasters.

Last, as I prepare myself for my day at the Greenpeace office, I wonder if today will be the day when the federal government finally releases its decision about listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act?  The federal government missed its self-imposed decision deadline of January 9, which is suspiciously convenient given the Chukchi Lease sale took place on February 6.  The Department of Interior probably  figured out that it could not list the polar bear as threatened in January and then sell of its habitat for oil and gas leasing less than a month later.

I’m doing all I can to take responsibility for global warming. I heat my home with wood, I walk everywhere, and I put a lot of effort into reducing my own carbon footprint.  I just wish the oil companies and federal government would follow my lead. I don’t like to think what Alaska will look like in another ten or twenty years. I don’t want to pick up the morning newspaper and read about coastal villages being swept out to sea creating a new wave of environmental refugees, polar bears drowning and cannibalizing each other in even greater numbers, the sea ice disappearing completely in summer, and  oil spills in the pristine waters of the Chukchi Sea.  I want to read about windfarms, wave power and geothermal energy replacing dirty fossil fuels.  Those are the headlines I look forward to reading.

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