Thursday, October 31, 2013

The BP oil spill and US agriculture

 It's Halloween, so of course we must have an environmental horror story; and if you stretch your imagination a little, perhaps you can envision a pumpkin in the orange flames.

Big, spectacular environmental disasters loom large in the public mind. Tiny, incremental ones that do far more damage don't get any press.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is a classic example of this. It was spectacular. It spilled a lot of oil (although, scientifically speaking, an amount that may be equalled by the amount of oil that naturally seeps from cracks in the bottom of the Gulf every year.) People were killed. All because of BP's insatiable lust for oil and profit.

 Well, let me rephrase that. All because of our own insatiable lust for oil, which we burn and use constantly, and then attack and blame the oil companies for. It has become the fashion to point accusing fingers at the evil oil companies as the cause of all energy woes, as though we weren't the ones driving cars around every day to the supermarket and so on. Contradictions of this kind tend to drive me nuts; I am surrounded by thousands of individuals who complain about every kind of energy extraction, as  though they weren't using any energy themselves and weren't, in fact, indulgently using every little bit of energy they wanted to every day, in one of the most energy wasteful countries in the world..

In any event, as the prominent and expert marine biologist Carl Safina rightly pointed out in his detailed and carefully reasoned book on the blowout, A Sea in Flames, the blowout was not anywhere near as serious in the long run as the media would have anyone believe; and BP's response was not only entirely proper— it marks, to date, the world's most serious, extensive, and effective response to such an environmental disaster, aggressively eclipsing the response of Exxon to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred in a far more environmentally sensitive location—subject to far less long-term recovery—and killed far more animals.

Finally, let's remember, for a moment, that Exxon fought the settlement for years in court, instead of stepping up to the plate and doing what was right the way BP did.

 What's the difference between the two spills? Because of its natural oil seeps, the Gulf of Mexico's microbiotic infrastructure is well able to absorb and digest oil. Oil is, for the right kinds of bacteria, a rich source of food; and microbial blooms digested most of the oil that spilled from the Deepwater Horizon before it ever reached shore or impacted animal life. The media, in fact, had a difficult time finding any areas that were seriously impacted, so they kept playing the same footage over and over again in an effort to feed the sensationalism of the moment.  In Alaska, however, the waters are cold, microbial action is minimal, and the evolutionary infrastructure to feed on the oil isn't there. The two bodies of water are worlds apart in terms of their ability to absorb and digest oil spills.

When I explained this to my friends as the oil spill was taking place, and told them it would not turn out to be anywhere near as bad as the media was claiming it was, they were incredulous; but it turned out I was right all along. Go read Safina's book if you don't believe me.

All of this preamble, of course, to the fact that the real problem in the Gulf of Mexico is what is called the dead zone. This hypoxic (oxygen starved) area is caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River, which contributes about 70% of the nitrogen overload which is destroying the biology of the Gulf of Mexico. ( the balance is being contributed by sewage discharge.) It's the largest dead zone anywhere in the United States, But it gets little or no media attention.

Some people have, laughably, suggested that these giant pools of poisonous runoff which exterminate all life where they gather are not having a negative effect on the biology of the area. Naïve contentions and complacency thus serve to keep the issue out of the public eye; but if we were really going to take issue with industries that pollute the Gulf of Mexico, the US agricultural industry would have to top the list by a wide margin. Millions of tons of runoff are polluting the Gulf every year — this is not a one-off, where an oil well blew out. If we want to go by the current estimate on runoff, and remind ourselves that mega-agriculture has been in place since the 1970s, we can count approximately 40+ years of nitrogen and potassium runoff into the Gulf from US agribusinesses, adding up to probably 40 or 50 million tons of pollutants dumped into the Gulf over that period.

 Sensationalism of the kind that surrounded the BP oil spill distracts the public from the serious long-term issues being created by the "quiet" industries that subversively dump their chemistry into our waterways out of the public eye. These are pieces of territory that ought to be scrutinized far more carefully, and loudly, by the media—yet everyone shrugs their shoulders and acts as though nothing need be done.

Something, however, does need to be done, and what that something is is a serious scrutiny of US agribusiness — and worldwide agribusiness — and the environmental impact that their runoff has on the microbial infrastructure of waterways all over the world. I can assure you, if a successful lawsuit prosecuted US agribusinesses on the scale that BP has so far been prosecuted, they would stand on their heads to clean up their act and find ways to reduce and otherwise minimize the impact their runoff is having on our waterways.

Politics and ignorance have prevented anyone from taking this step, but it definitely ought to be done. There is absolutely no reason that agribusinesses and fertilizer producers should be given free reign to pollute while the oil industry is held accountable for every gallon of oil that gets dumped into a creek, lake, river, or ocean basin.

Yes, oil spills are bad; but the sensationalist nature of press coverage on them takes our attention off the much more serious issues being caused by long-term pollution from other sources.

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