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Recent Spills Give More Reason to Move Beyond Big Oil
Big Oil has dealt North America a battering this month as we've seen spill after spill hit the headlines. Label it negligence or an inevitable reality of oil production, the impact is the same: oil and its byproducts are being dumped into our communities, our water supplies and the delicate ecosystems that we value. Despite the industry's slick rhetoric of reassurance about the safety of oil extraction, it is undeniably clear that Big Oil is unable to contain its destructive product to the detriment of our health, communities and environment.
It is high time our elected leaders embrace this indisputable fact and start taking serious steps to reduce our exposure to these risks—starting by saying no to the most extreme projects like drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic coasts or tar sands development—and ensuring that whatever extraction does occur is held to stringent safety standards. Ultimately, however, what the recent headlines make abundantly clear is that we will only be safe from the harms of fossil fuel production when we succeed in moving beyond oil to clean alternatives—and there is no time to waste.
Between four spills in July alone (described in the chart above), we have seen more than 1.3 million gallons oil foul our lands while an unknown quantity, up to another million gallons, was leaked in to Galveston Bay. Of the oil allowed to spill onto soil, 97 percent of it was near Ft. McMurray in Alberta, Canada. The 1.3 million gallons of emulsion (tar sands bitumen and water) leaked by tar sands leviathan, Nexen, constitutes one of the worst land spills in history and it evaded detection by the relatively new pipeline's "failsafe" spill detection system.
Neither the spill itself nor the failure of the failsafe are rare occurrences, unfortunately. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found that leak detection systems only detected spills on a company's right-of-way 11 percent of the time. So pipelines are left to dump toxic pollutants onto the ground until an employee, landowner, or member of the public stumbles across it 9 times out of 10. In the last 20 years, there have been more than 5,600 "significant" pipeline incidents that have caused nearly 1,400 injuries, killed an average of 18 people each year and cost almost $7 billion in damages.
Spills from trains, piplelines, and ships, only, since January 2015.
Big Oil wants us to label these spills as unforeseen mistakes. "Accidents happen," they say. But when a pattern is clear, risks are high and consequences grave, it's time to question whether it is right to accept a status quo of predictable, consistent error and harm. Instead, we must acknowledge that each of these oil spills are not only technological mistakes or matters of human error, but systematic failures and allowing them to continue becomes a question of conscience.
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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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