I’m sorry, but the irony is just too thick these days. We Americans are rightly upset with BP for the devastating spill in the Gulf that is wreaking ecological devastation on a mammoth scale. But as I watch the television news and read the daily coverage, I’m not hearing enough outrage at our petroleum-dependent lifestyles and the gas-guzzling vehicles we hop into at a moment’s notice to drive to the store for a pint of ice cream. We need to hold a mirror up to ourselves at those protest rallies.
Oil spills are tragic on multiple levels: to the affected ecosystems; to those who depend on the region’s bounty for their livelihoods; to the tourism industry in the region; and even to employees at the oil companies and public agencies whom we have to assume are trying hard to do the right thing. Residents of the Gulf Coast and ecosystems are being — or will soon be — devastated by the spill that continues to hemorrhage tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf daily. We must redouble efforts to protect coastal wetlands while workers with their undersea robotic vehicles continue trying to stem the leak. And we certainly should hold the companies that caused the leak liable for the costs of cleanup, as well as for the economic damage both the oil and its cleanup are causing. Those impacts will likely be measurable for years, if not decades.
But at the same time, we too — consumers of the oil and gas we are going to ever-greater effort to harvest — must share some of that blame. Every once in a while we are reminded in a very dramatic way of the larger impacts of our profligate consumption of oil. The Santa Barbara oil spill in January 1969 spilled 200,000 gallons of crude oil, despoiling a 35-mile stretch of the California coastline and resulting in a ban on offshore drilling. Twenty years later in March, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil, ravaging the rich biodiversity along a 1,300-mile span of Prince William Sound coastline and leading to tighter regulations on shipping oil, including the requirement for double hulls in the oil tankers that haul billions of gallons of oil around the world each year.
Now, after two more decades, another oil spill is dominating the news. As with the other two described, this one is far larger than the previous one. By government estimates, the BP spill has already spewed 22-35 million gallons (at least twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez), and some experts say the rate of flow from the disabled blowout valve is significantly greater. While progress appears to have been made in capturing some of the gushing oil, we are told that it will be months before the well is permanently capped and the spill fully contained.
These spills are horrible, of course, but so too are the spills that occur when the oil pans in our cars drip oil. Each year in the U.S. roughly 180 million gallons of motor oil is either dumped down the drain during oil changes or is leaked from engine crankcases, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The few drops of gasoline that most of us spill each time we fuel up our cars add up to hundreds of thousands of gallons per year nationally. Leaks from our outboard motors leave that familiar iridescent sheen on the water. The lubricating oil we use in our chainsaws is deposited directly onto the ground as we cut our cordwood (as it’s intended to do). These smaller incremental leaks each year add up to many times as much oil contamination as the BP spill to date.
This is not at all meant to trivialize the BP spill, but rather to point out the significance of oil spills that we consumers can do something about. We can repair our cars so that they don’t drip motor oil. We can be more careful when fueling up. We can use biobased lubricating oil for chainsaws. And, of course, we can use less energy—by driving less and better insulating our houses.
If we’re serious about our anger at the BP oil spill in the Gulf, we should direct a large share of that anger at our own consumption of petroleum in our cars and our homes. As Pogo said in Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
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