"When will they ever learn?" The
refrain of that 1960s anti-war song
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
keeps running through my head as I
watch the horrible, unending footage
from the Gulf of Mexico resulting from
the April 20 blowout of the BP (British
This is not the first oil spill we have
witnessed. A blowout from a well off
the California coast in 1969 jump-started
the environmental movement.
Remember the Kuwaiti oil pipelines
opened on land and the fires as the
Iraqis retreated in the First Gulf War in
1991? And over the years, at least four
tankers have had accidents, including
the Exxon Valdez in Prince William
Sound in Alaska in 1989.
But this is the worst spill ever—and
the deepest. The explosion of the Deepwater
Horizon oil rig platform killed
11 crew members. Oil rushing up to
the surface burned for days. Oil has
now spread into the Gulf's clear waters,
killing sea life and waterfowl, despoiling
beaches and polluting the air. It
has rendered one third of the Gulf of
Mexico unfit for fishing and trawling.
Long-suffering fishermen, shrimpers
and those who depend on tourism have
worked hard to come back after Hurricane
Katrina; now they face this.
Rob Gorman, executive director of
Catholic Charities for the Diocese of
Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, pointed
out in a telephone conference call June
23 that dealing with this situation is far
worse than with hurricanes, which follow
a predictable pattern. But not
knowing where the oil will land, how
much damage it will do and for how
long is creating great anxiety for these
proud, tough people.
Could This Have Been Prevented?
As of July 1, the well has still not been
sealed. An estimated 35,000-60,000 barrels
of oil continue to leak into the
Gulf every day. Even with two containment
caps now collecting as much
as 90 percent of the oil, almost 16 times
the amount of oil that spilled from the
Exxon Valdez will be in the Gulf by the
time you read this.
Mid-August is when BP estimates it
will have completed drilling on two
relief wells and plugged the leak with
cement. If the leak continues uncontrolled,
it could last two years.
Alaskans still suffering the impact
of Exxon Valdez came to Louisiana to
share what they had learned: Put health
and safety concerns first. Then worry
about the environment and the economy,
The situation in the Gulf may be different
because of the warm waters and
barrier islands. Gorman calls these
islands "speed bumps for hurricanes."
Their marsh grasses are nurseries for
oysters and other sea life.
"Because there has never been a leak
of this size at this depth," President
Barack Obama pointed out in the first
Oval Office address of his presidency
June 20, "stopping it has tested the
limits of human technology."
But good planning always takes into
account worst-case scenarios. Other oil
giants like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and
Shell have criticized BP for doing things
on the cheap. Actually, investigating
lawmakers have found that these companies
all have "cookie-cutter" plans
for responding to oil spills.
This is why more government regulation
is needed in these matters. And
Minerals Management Services should
not benefit financially from the oil and
gas leases it approves. Regulators should
not get cozy with those regulated.
Who knows whether the $20 billion
escrow account President Obama negotiated
with BP will be enough to pay all
It's excellent that the president outlined
a long-term Gulf restoration plan.
He also called for a national commission
to examine the causes of the spill
and to recommend additional safety
mechanisms such as those followed in
Norway and Brazil.
What can any of us do? First, we can
pray that these relief wells actually can
plug the leak and pray for wisdom.
Boycotting BP gas stations is not a
fair response because these small
businesses are independent from BP.
We need to develop better technology for dealing with the wells we
already have, but at the same time we
must stop putting our faith in technology.
All technology has limits, and
it's painfully obvious how little we
know about the earth's dynamics and
web of life. We must treat God's gifts
We need to educate ourselves and
our families about the consequences
of living in a fossil fuel-dependent society.
Rise to the Great Energy Challenge
(http://environment.nationalgeographic.com) and find out how
you can be part of the solution. Learn
simple changes like using cornstarch-based
products instead of plastics,
which are made from oil. Keep asking
for more energy-efficient cars and reduce
driving. Buy foods grown locally
to avoid shipping's gasoline costs.
We need to reach out to the millions
of people whose jobs are directly
or indirectly impacted by the spill.
Make a donation to www.CatholicCharities.org so it can continue helping
the people of the Gulf.
When he set up an oil-spill disaster
fund in his Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Bishop Sam Jacobs said:
"As a Church and as a people of faith
we will again be the first responders
reaching out to those affected. We can't
do everything, but what we can do
within our limited resources, we will
do. We are in this together, and God is
with us. This is the time for action and
each of us has a part to play."—B.B.