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Plug the Leak and Prevent More Oil Spills

Q U I C K S C A N

Could This Have Been Prevented?
What Can We Do?


"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 Petroleum) well.

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.

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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, they say.

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 the claims?

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 with reverence.

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.


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