The Tragedy of Managed Expectations in the Gulf: When There’s No Good News, Make Some Up

(Counterpunch) Where is the Gulf oil? This morning googling the question produces 16,676 related articles. It is the spatter of zeitgeist, of Youtube clips, talk shows, nightly news, CSPAN and press conferences from sea to sea shining with petroleum. The hidden clouds of oil spilled by BP into the Gulf of Mexico may or may not be light, may or may not be dispersed into droplets or globs, may or may not coat beaches, wetlands and mangroves along the Gulf coast for decades to come: toxic as the day is long. According to AP, “At first we had a lot of concern about surface animals like turtles, whales and dolphins,” said Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi who studies Gulf reefs. “Now we’re concerned about everything.” (Deep sea oil plumes, chemical dispersants pose risks for the Gulf’s coral reefs, food chain”, May 17 2010)

The scale for “everything” is not barrels per day pouring into the Gulf. “Everything” was gathered in a recent report called the United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook. In this context, a catalogue of the sixth great extinction in the geologic record, the oil spill evaporating, drifting, and congealing in the Gulf of Mexico has entrained us all.

According to a National Public Radio broadcast: “The saddest part… might not be all the data about dwindling species.” Dwindling species that will no longer sustain the food chain or economies that depended on this section of the Gulf until April 23. 5,000 barrels per day, or 70,000 barrels per day or more: the numbers are devastating from any point of view. NPR continues: “It might be the data about us, homo sapiens. A decade ago, world leaders set 21 goals to meet by 2010 to protect the world’s biological diversity, and here’s how well we’ve done: None of the 21 goals, not even one, has been met on a global scale.”

The context of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is full scale surrender to climate chaos. Its trail is visible from outer space to astronauts. In MSNBC “Astronauts see ‘scary’ oil spill from space, (May 18, 2010), “NASA astronaut Piers Sellers, a trained ecologist currently at the station as part of the visiting space shuttle Atlantis’ crew, said the oil slick is an unshakeable example of humanity’s effect on its home planet. “These things aren’t good,” he said of the oil slick. “When you fly around the planet you get to see the thumbprint of man all over the place.” While mostly that thumbprint is positive, such as sustainable cities and cultivation of the land for agriculture, there are also signs of the damage humanity has done to Earth. Nonetheless, he said, the sight of the globe gave him hope. “We’re optimistic, I think, that people will eventually learn to look after the planet,” Sellers said.”

Telling the story of climate catastrophe this way—no bad news without a dollop of good—is like massively applying the oil dispersant Corexit on the oil deep under the surface; highly toxic and still applied to mitigate the spill. </a> It gets worse. A year before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank in 5,000 feet of water, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas wrote: “The image of oil villains despoiling our beaches … is fodder for political grandstanding and greenie fundraising. Drilling foes don’t have any recent pictures of oily birds to make their case, so they throw out worst-case scenarios that are about as likely as an oil bit goosing Godzilla out of the depths.” (‘Drill, baby, drill’, April 23, 2009) How so last-year to the day.

It is painful to look at the world with a gimlet eye, but the closer one trains the microscope on public policies and public behavior from global to local, the more acute the damage appears. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is like a fixative. It illuminates the scale of dependencies on fossil fuels and the lengths we will go, and interests placate, and pockets line– to drill here, drill now; the Deepwater Horizon disaster conceals within its midst hundreds of millions of dollars of science and studies and meetings and agencies posturing back and forth about pollution; should it be regulated? how should it be measured? who should enforce? Can government do anything, or, can it do nothing? This is the clutter of noise through which a few key oil company executives made a chain of bad decisions leading to the biggest environmental disaster in US history. No wonder they will not show the continuous feed of videotape from the broken pipes underground, no more than show the caskets of US soldiers as they are brought home from wars fought to maintain our dibs on Mideast sources of oil. If you are an oil producer in the Mideast, now is the time to lower the price of oil.

NOAA, a science agency of the US government with a mission tied to the US Department of Commerce, has a major presence in the Gulf and the Florida Keys. If you were to put a dollar amount to its budget for enforcement of laws protecting natural resources, and if you were to guess that it is practically nothing, and if you were to imagine that enforcement authority has been largely off-loaded to the states and in the case of Florida that, furthermore, local and state politics have ensured that budgets for agencies charged with environmental enforcement have been thoroughly strangled and eviscerated under Republican legislative majorities, you would be right. You would also be right to question whether the underlying premise of extremist Republican politics is a certainty in hopelessness.

Yesterday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar faced an outraged Congress; a Congress that performed even more poorly supporting laws and budgets for enforcement of environmental regulations than it did in protecting the US Treasury from predators. Of the MInerals Management Service– the agency responsible for monitoring offshore drilling activities–Salazar “said that the majority of the agency’s 1,700 employees were honest and capable but that there remained “a few bad apples”. Neither Salazar nor the Congressmen were inclined to revisit the “sex-for-oil” scandal that erupted at the same agency in 2008. Salazar said that anyone found guilty of negligence or corruption would be rooted out. (Federal Agency Chief Admits Lapses in Gulf Oil Spill, NY Times, May 18, 2010) The question remains: how could President Barack Obama, he of the grass roots organizing background, he of the spirit of empowerment of the weak, he of the Harvard Law School, how could this president fail to purge from federal agencies the ideologues who had hijacked their mission on behalf of special interests under the lazy eye of Bill Clinton, the triangulator, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney whose White House closed the doors behind Big Oil from very nearly their first day in office?

The truth of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has been leaking out for weeks: that Congress is in business to defend polluters; that the wealthiest nation on earth, with the most advanced regulatory system in the free world meant to protect public health and the environment, cannot meet its own goals and obligations under federal laws because of insider dealing and the revolving door between the regulated and regulators, ensuring lucrative sinecures so long as regulatory vessels are more preoccupied with bailing out and defending budgets and authority from attacks, than actually protecting against industry’s excesses.

So it is that environmentalists and government skeptics are all in the same boat–without oars or engine–drifting on the Gulf Loop current along with tens of millions of gallons of spilled oil; we’re waiting to see what happens. Only a few dozen tar balls have washed up in Key West. Yesterday I heard a news report that 187 birds and sea mammals had died as a result of the spill. The web is providing some very effective ways to measure the damage, which according to the top BP executive will be minimal. This is what it feels like to drift off to war.

I observed the Gulf Loop in the late 1980’s, when a sea-grass die off began in the Marquesas, a gorgeous and uninhabited string of islands thirty miles west of Key West, Florida. In the pristine waters, the die-off was unconnected to any similar phenomenon to the east and north. The culprit was dirty water pouring from the Gulf of Mexico. Pouring. In the adjacent Boca Grande Channel, six miles wide, the current runs at a sprint from west to east. A few miles beyond, the Gulf Loop hooks into the Gulf Stream. Now the world is watching the Gulf Loop experiment, leading oil from the worst offshore oil spill in US history toward the third-longest barrier reef in the world and potentially to seep into shallow seagrass beds that were the glory of Florida Bay.

This comes as a hard blow to a small group of conservationists who spent the better part of their lives working with government policies, laws, agencies and regulations to restore clean water flow through the Everglades into Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay, a shallow water wilderness that has already suffered a cascade of accelerating damage.

“Capt. Jim Sharpe, charter captain out of Summerland Key near Key West, tried to be hopeful, noting that the Gulf Stream sometimes moves as far as 40 miles from the Keys. But if the oil does come, he said, it would be “catastrophic.” “There wouldn’t be any fishing,” he said. “And without fishing and diving in the Keys, there isn’t much left.” (“Gulf oil spill could ‘devastate’ South Florida’s environment”, Sun Sentinel, May 5, 2010) In the late 1980’s Sharpe was member of a colorful, local Keys community of fishermen, treasure salvors and anti-government activists who opposed government intervention in environmental protection through a new national marine sanctuary sponsored by NOAA, fearing more intrusion of regulations on individual liberties. Their cause dovetailed and was funded by the same interests located in the American West who started the Wise Use Movement and the Reagan era Sagebrush Rebellion.

In the Keys two decades ago, the cascading damage to Florida Bay was attracting both environmental groups, like the Wilderness Society under Arizonan Jim Webb and the adversary: Big Sugar seeking to close off any attempts to regulate its “free” use of the historic Everglades as a sewer for its phosphorous pollution. Keys environmentalists knew how badly outnumbered they were: they supported the creation by Congress of the national marine sanctuary, hoping that it would provide funding and programming to stem the tide of degradation. The greens didn’t want bureaucracy, necessarily. They wanted government to enforce existing regulations and especially the nation’s most important federal environmental laws that had manifestly failed to be enforced– like the Clean Water Act, or, protecting fragile sea grass beds from propeller scars and dredging. Many conservationists put aside concerns that overlaying more government agencies and authority would only lead to enshrining the ineffective and commemorating champions, no matter they accomplished so little. Although green careerism was at a far fainter scale than industry, it nevertheless provided ammo for the red meat bloviators to come like Rush Limbaugh, and masked the centrifugal force of politics from low to high, through which science-based coffee-klatches manifested in hotel conference rooms where the decline of natural resources would be studied as though all the world turned on how many angels could be fit on the head of a pin.

In a recent email on the NOAA Coral Reef listserve, David Palandro, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission wrote delicately: “Oil that MAY (Palandro’s capitalization) find its way down the Loop Current (surface) is expected to take a ABOUT a week to reach the Keys. The oil that MAY reach the Keys will be heavily weathered and expected to be dime to quarter sized tar balls. I have placed a picture of charred tar balls found two days ago on the east end of Perdido Key, Florida on http://www.truediveteam.org/news.html. There were a total of 3. Tar balls have minimum impact on coral reefs. Physical contact should be minimized as they tend to stay on the surface. Acute toxic impacts should be minimal because the volatiles/toxins should have been expended off early on. There is an ongoing debate on long-term effects that are worthy of discussion when we find out the dose and exposure of the oil that reaches the Keys. I hope that this helps those with questions and I hope that this is not misinterpreted as me saying ‘don’t worry’. I simply wanted to present facts as they are and let folks draw their own conclusions. As you all know this is a very dynamic incident, and will remain that way until the well head is capped. This is not a oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez … as it stands now.”

In Audubon’s online magazine, “What Happens to Florida’s Coral Reefs, Mangroves and Seagrass if the Oil Spill Hits?” (May 13, 2010) James Fourqurean, a marine ecologist from Florida International University, says, “… “seagrasses themselves seem to be relatively resistant to oil… The only time the seagrass plants themselves are really drastically harmed by those oil spills are when the oil actually ponds up at low tide at inches deep across the sea grass bed.” A critic notes of Fourqurean, “… that’s the same scientist who produced a NOAA funded report on the nearshore habitats of the Keys a few years ago wherein he said their “study” couldn’t document any signs of human-induced impacts to the nearshore seagrasses of the Keys.”

Everyone has their own version of history. That much is clear to the wise. And it is also abundantly clear that scientific baselines have been shifting so dramatically in the Florida Keys and Gulf over the past twenty years, there is scarcely anything in near shore waters that resembles natural history as it existed only a few decades ago. The same is true of coastal Louisiana. Environmental groups, welded to win-win scenario planning, public-private partnerships with industry and often polluters, struggle to find up from down in a world where Arcadia is mostly available in Orlando theme parks for a price.

If any president has a “true north”– take away all the prerequisites of office, the cocoon of presidential privilege and power–if any president has the capacity to feel the moral outrage; not just of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe but of the global consequences of climate change, Barack Obama should. And what his outrage should tell him is that the time for federal authority to stop playing fast and loose with environmental policies and laws. Deepwater Horizon magnifies the urgency. There is a good reason that BP has been allowed by the federal government and agencies to run the show in the Gulf of Mexico. Government, with failure built into its operation and capacity, has been infested with fear, paranoia, careerism and padded with inefficiency for so long, and pushed down by industry and the wages of lobbyists, that the question arises: who is there to make decisions except by committee, except by waffling. Is there anyone willing to pick up the lance and sword and lead? Or, is the battle we are observing, simply to be the last man standing?

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