Good – yes, there’s good – and bad news about the spill

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

GRAND ISLE, La. — It is pretty much a toss-up for me: Who poses a greater longterm threat to Amer­ica’s Gulf Coast ecosys­tem: the U.S. Se­nate or BP? Right now, from what I’ve seen fly­ing over the Louisiana coast at the mouth of the Mis­sis­sippi, my vote is the U.S. Se­nate. BP at least seems to have fi­nally got­ten its act to­gether and is clean­ing up the oil spill. The Se­nate, in fail­ing to pass even the most mod­est bill to di­min­ish our ad­dic­tion to oil and be­gin to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, has not even be­gun to do its job.

I have to ad­mit, I was sur­prised and pleased that it took us an hour of fly­ing in our float plane over Bre­ton Sound and Barataria Bay and across the marshes, bay­ous, bar­rier is­lands and open wa­ter that lie about 70 miles from the site of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig be­fore we spot­ted any sig­nif­i­cant rib­bon of oil. “There it is,” said our pi­lot, as he banked the plane for a bet­ter view of the small oil slick and as if he were point­ing out a pod of whales we had been search­ing for all day.

Here’s the good news. Thanks to: the cap­ping of the bro­ken oil well; the cleanup ef­forts so far by a flotilla of shrimp boats con­verted to skim­mers; the cur­rents that have bless­edly taken a lot of the spill away from the shore; the weath­er­ing process that is break­ing down a lot of the crude into dif­fer­ent com­pounds that dis­solve, evap­o­rate or get ab­sorbed by mi­crobes in the ocean; and the dis­per­sants that have bro­ken up the biggest oil slicks, there is less and less to see here on the sur­face. Walk­ing along the beach on Grand Isle, the only in­hab­ited bar­rier is­land on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, it ap­pears that our worst fears have not ma­te­ri­al­ized — so far.

So much for the good news. The bad news is what you can’t see that is hap­pen­ing un­der the ocean’s sur­face and the stuff you can see — the decades of degra­da­tion along the whole Gulf Coast from decades of un­fet­tered devel­op­ment — that no one is talk­ing about.

“From a bi­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, we know what hap­pens when oil hits the beach. We can see those im­pacts; we can mit­i­gate those im­pacts; we can quan­tify those im­pacts,” said Keith Ouch­ley, the bi­ol­o­gist who leads the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy in Louisiana. “What we don’t know are the bi­o­log­i­cal im­pacts that oc­cur as that oil is dis­persed through the deep wa­ter col­umns un­der the ocean’s sur­face. We don’t know what it is do­ing or af­fect­ing to­day or in the fu­ture. There is very lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with this scale of spill at these depths in such a bi­o­log­i­cally pro­duc­tive sys­tem as this.”

The great­est con­cern, Ouch­ley said, is what im­pact the un­der­sea oil con­cen­tra­tions could have on the bil­lions of tiny lar­val fish, shrimp and other or­gan­isms that are at the bot­tom of the whole ma­rine food chain — and we may not know that for many years.

What com­pounds that worry is that the marshes, sea grasses, oys­ter beds and bar­rier is­lands that pro­vide the nurs­eries for those lar­val fish, shrimp and other ma­rine life — and that pro­vide nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers against storm surges from hur­ri­canes — had al­ready been dra­mat­i­cally weak­ened long be­fore the BP spill. That was thanks to the build­ing of levies that have pre­vented the rivers’ nat­u­ral flood­ing of life-giv­ing fresh­wa­ter and sed­i­ments into the marshes, as well as the lay­ing of oil and gas pipe­lines and ship­ping nav­i­ga­tion chan­nels all across the ecosys­tem. “A foot­ball field of marsh is be­ing washed into the ocean ev­ery 30 min­utes,” Ouch­ley said.

Bob Mar­shall, an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­porter for The Times-Picayune of New Or­leans, put the BP spill in the right con­text when he wrote: “We need to re­mem­ber this is a tem­po­rary prob­lem on top of a per­ma­nent dis­as­ter. Long af­ter BP’s oil is gone, we’ll still be fight­ing for sur­vival against a much more se­ri­ous en­emy — our sink­ing, crum­bling delta. Our coast is like a can­cer pa­tient who has come down with pneu­mo­nia. That’s se­ri­ous, but cur­able. Af­ter the fever breaks, he’ll still have can­cer.”

That’s where the Se­nate has failed mis­er­ably. There are three things it should be do­ing for the Gulf and our other vi­tal ecosys­tems. First, tak­ing out some min­i­mal in­surance against cli­mate change by re­duc­ing our car­bon emis­sions; this re­gion is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to sea level rise and the more in­tense storms that cli­mate change will bring. Sec­ond, set us on a path to di­min­ish our ad­dic­tion to oil so we don’t have to drill in ever-deeper wa­ters. And, fi­nally, pro­vide the fed­eral fund­ing to re­store Amer­ica’s crit­i­cal ecosys­tems. The Se­nate aban­doned the first two but is still work­ing on the third.

The Se­nate’s fail­ure to act is a re­sult of many fac­tors, but one is that the cli­mate-en­ergy pol­icy de­bate got dis­con­nected from av­er­age peo­ple. We need less talk about “cli­mate” and more about how con­ser­va­tion saves money, re­new­able en­ergy cre­ates jobs, restor­ing the Gulf’s marshes sus­tains fish­er­men and pre­serv­ing the rain­for­est helps poor peo­ple. Said Glenn Prick­ett, vice pres­i­dent at the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy: “We have to take cli­mate change out of the at­mos­phere, bring it down to earth and show how it mat­ters in peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives.”

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