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Something I Found

In: Social Issues

Submitted By glenbeck
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On April 20 a wellhead on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform blew out in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 40 miles southeast of the
Louisiana coastline. What BP had initially claimed would be a spill with
“minimal impact”, 69 days later now constitutes the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Today the well is conservatively estimated to be leaking at a rate of 1,900,000–3,000,000 litres per day—though several expert estimates based on footage of the spill suggest the actual rate is more likely to be 3 to
5 times higher than this. The unusually wide disparity in expert estimates is due to the fact that BP has continually denied the requests of a number of independent scientists to set up instruments on the ocean floor that could measure the rate of the leak more accurately. “The answer is ‘no’ to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom
Mueller, said earlier this month. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

Mueller’s remarks continue to be a source of serious controversy: just how is it that measuring the rate at which oil is gushing from the well would serve as a hindrance to the response effort? Even more baffling is how one could possibly construe the measurement as irrelevant. If we don’t know how big the mess is, how exactly are we to adequately prepare for cleaning it up?

One would think the U.S. government would want to ensure that the press and scientists had access to the spill site in order to provide public visibility of the effects of the spill and a source of reliable empirical information about the rate of leakage etc., but unfortunately just the opposite has been the standard. Earlier this month the New York Times reported an entire survey of incidents of the press being denied access to the site and surrounding areas earlier this month, including one reporter even being threatened with arrest by the U.S. Coastguard for attempting to gain access to the site.

The Obama administration has failed to acknowledge the continual denial of press access publicly. Following President Obama’s first address to the nation concerning the oil spill (which was roughly two months after the spill began), the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, fielded questions about the spill and the government’s response, and when Gibbs was questioned about the issue of media access only offered vague comments about
President Obama’s commitment to transparency in government and how the press are only denied access to “safety zones”—though the NYT article cited above suggests this is patently false.

The U.S. Government could of course have legitimate reasons for restricting press access, but one would hope that a government that claims to value transparency would also be transparent about their reasons for restricting this access. This raises important ethical questions about what circumstances justify a government or private company in restricting what information is made available to the public. How much access should the press have to the spill site? Is BP justified in restricting press access in order to preserve its image? Is BP justified in restricting access for independent scientists and engineers? At what point is the government obligated to intervene in order to ensure the public is getting the information it is entitled to? In fact, what information exactly is the public entitled to?

Some of the other major ethical questions surrounding the spill involve moral and legal obligations we might have to wildlife and the environment.

Conspicuously absent from Obama’s address was genuine acknowledgment of the sheer magnitude of the damage the spill will have for years to come on the wildlife in the Gulf and the ecosystem generally. Some of the immediate effects of a spill are obvious – there is no shortage of gut-wrenching images of wildlife doused in oil and seabirds suffocating while frantically and frivolously preening themselves. But some types of ecological damage are hard to measure and can take years to document. The miles long underwater plumes of oil will likely poison and suffocate life across the food chain, with damage that according to scientists could endure for a decade or more. Many of the creatures that die will sink to the bottom, making mortality estimates difficult. Damage to the reproduction rate of sea turtles may take years to play out.

Unique to the Deepwater Horizon spill is not only how deep it is, but also the huge quantity of chemical dispersants sprayed on the surface and at the leak on the seafloor. The problem with dispersants is two-fold in that oil is not only directly toxic to many of the creatures in the
Gulf like pelicans, sea turtles, fish, and dolphins, but also microbes in the water that eat the oil suck oxygen out of the water at a massive rate, with levels of oxygen depletion that could be lethal to many other creatures in the water. Moreover the dispersants that are used to fight the oil are also consumed by the microbes—speeding up the rate of oxygen depletion in the Gulf even further. What is especially worrying is that on top of this dangerously low levels of oxygen are already a concern as, according the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, huge numbers of fish, dolphins, and even sharks, are already crowding into exceptionally shallow waters near the shores of Alabama and
Florida in order to escape the oil. There's also little scientific understanding of how the dispersants might affect the deep-water ecosystem.

Legal protection of wildlife in the Gulf is thin. There are no laws that exist simply to protect animal interests. U.S. law protects animals as property. That means laws designed to protect animals exist only to protect the interests of their owners or the public “Most of the wild animals affected by the BP spill do not have any legal protections at all, and there is no penalty that can be imposed for suffocating them with oil, destroying their habitats and otherwise harming them,” said Justin Goodman, a representative of PETA.

"The
Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have protections in place for the dolphins, whales and sea turtles that live in the Gulf. But the
Minerals Management Service has approved oil exploration without the permits required by the two acts.

The Obama administration is the target of lawsuits over this."

Environmental disasters of this magnitude certainly raise the question whether we ought to have stricter laws for the protection of the environment not only for the sake of wildlife and the ecological system, but also for the people whose livelihood depends on the health of the Gulf. Another question to raise here is whether some wild animals ought to have more robust legal protections of their interests—legal protections motivated apart from human interest in the enjoyment of wild animals as “property”.

So far the death toll with respect to wildlife does not have shockingly high numbers, As of June 25, there had been 1,539 dead animals found in the spill zone including 1074 dead birds, 417 sea turtles, and 48 dolphins and other mammals—but these numbers likely do not even come close to reflecting the actual number of deaths.

As
NWF senior scientist Dr. Doug Inkley explains, these numbers tell only part of the story as the effect of the oil on marine life remains hidden beneath the massive plumes of oil that are hundreds of feet deep, making it impossible to capture the full scope of the spill’s impact. “We know we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with those that have been washed up onshore and tested.”

Of course the timing also couldn’t have been much worse as now is the time of year when most nesting occurs: "Right now is nesting season for brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills and a host of other birds," said Inkley. "Knowing that it only takes a drop or two of oil to kill the developing chick in an egg, I could not help but feel a great sense of loss…It is going to take years, maybe decades for the fish and wildlife in this region to recover."

"Words like 'tragedy' and 'disaster' do not do justice to what is happening”, he added. Clearly it couldn’t be more urgent that we clean this up as soon as possible, but as the lateness of Obama’s address might suggest, the response has been slow….
Very slow. According to the President of the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana,
Billy Nungesser, the government’s actual response to this catastrophe has been
“embarrassing”. In an interview earlier this month President Nungesser spoke about how the government has no master plan for coping with this disaster and that federal officials, including
Admiral Thad Allen, consistently refuse to accept clean up plans developed by local and state governments, despite their experience, and moreover lack any alternative plan. He also expressed frustration about the fact that the government seems more concerned with emphasizing the fact that this is BP’s fault than with actually assisting in the clean up.

“What you’ve seen in pictures in minimal compared to what’s ahead. It’s just starting to get into the breeding grounds and you will see much more death and devastation amongst the wildlife in south Louisiana in the weeks to come and today we’re doing absolutely nothing but redeploying the same boom and doing some minimal skimming. There is no plan, there is no master plan, there’s nobody taking charge. The President of the United States has got to step up to the plate. We’re begging him… We’ve given him several plans that will work.
Either do our plan or come up with one better, but quit threatening back and forth between BP and the coast guard. It’s like a bunch of kids pointing the finger at each other. Step up to the plate. We need leadership now, not a blame game. ”

When asked if he believed the U.S. Government had been criminal, Pres Nungesser responded, “Well, absolutely.”

Has the Obama administration lived up to its moral obligations with respect to the spill? More generally, at what point might other countries have a right to intervene when it comes to the handling of environmental disasters and environmental safety regulations? Certainly climate change issues of international reach, like the regulation of fossil fuel emissions, are also relevant to these sorts of questions.

With Libya’s announcement of a deal just yesterday that will allow BP to initiate deepwater drilling off its coast, as well as Hurricane Alex and the rest of hurricane season looming, we might have to address such questions sooner than we’d have hoped.…...

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