To the Point: Environmental historian talks about impacts of oil spill

University Park, Pa. — The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the April explosion of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 crew members, has poured about 100 million gallons of oil into the water and caused significant damage to ecology and industry. It is already considered the largest offshore spill in U.S. history and may be among the largest spills in the world. It may also be among the worst industrial disasters in modern history.

"At this point we're just going to be estimating because it is at a scale and dimension that we just haven't seen before," says environmental historian Brian Black, a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona.

Black notes that while the current crisis cannot be minimized, it also is important to consider the historical context of the spill and how it could impact our fuel consumption and policies in the future.

How does this compare with other environmental catastrophes, such as the chemical gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India or the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska?

Black: When we begin to try to imagine the possible implications of this spill, we focus on the surface oil, where you have some comparative possibilities with Valdez. The problem with this spill is the undersea pockets, the plumes. The oil is coming from the bottom of the body of water and has many more opportunities to impact the ecosystem. Frankly, that's off the radar screen. This is a lab experiment to see what kind of implications such a spill will have over the long term. We haven't even gotten to the point yet where we know what the size of the spill will be as the oil continues to flow.

In other industrial accidents, such as the spill in Bhopal, you have oversight or industrial ethics that have lapsed. These become part of the issue as well. Very often that becomes the catalyst for change and regulation or change in the way business is conducted. In incidents such as Bhopal, you have the added dimension of conflict between a developed world and a less-developed world. What is different about the situation with the Gulf Spill is that it is an international situation, with a global, British-based company that has caused this disaster on American soil. The U.S. has to deal with that in a profoundly new way. It's the United States having to deal with one of its great international friends in a situation that is a tragic one for its people and ecology. There are all sorts of complications here.

What makes the gulf spill so different from the Valdez spill in 1989?

Black: In comparison to Valdez, this spill is already very different in terms of size. What I find instructive about this situation in comparison with Valdez is that Valdez was a very remote place. I teach an environmental studies class and we talk about the concept of wilderness. Alaska seems like someplace else. It always seems far away. In the preservation of wilderness, we don't want that place to be ruined. But in the case of an oil spill, people think, "Well, that’s very far from my home and any place I know. So I'll worry about it for a little bit and then it's in the past." Very likely, that's what is occurring with a lot of Americans.

Pretty recently I took students up to Alaska and the Yukon, and though we didn't go to Valdez, we talked with people who had done extensive sociological work there. They talked about the lasting impacts of the spill there. After studying the native populations and people who are impacted by lasting damage to the marine ecosystem, it's still being felt. There are still problems.

The attention of most Americans, of course, moved on long ago; but at the ground level they are still very much dealing with implications of their spill decades later. In the Gulf experience, the media has made sure that the event is front and center. The location is not quite so exotic and distant. I think there is a very strong possibility this will be something that impacts many Americans. Instead of only a stop in the industrial disaster pantheon, it is going to be the catalyst in changing some very basic things about how Americans live.

Have these kinds of disasters been catalysts for change in the past?

Black: Historians and environmental activists can be cynical about it and their answer would be, "No, these events haven't changed things." But what they are talking about is best classified as degrees of change. If you view cultural change as a more gradual thing, these types of moments are very often the catalyst for broad, significant shifts in our ideas. In the case of the Valdez oil spill, we did see significant change and regulation, particularly in how oil was shipped. It is very unfortunate that disasters have to happen before we consider changes such as regulation or changes to our own patterns of energy use. It is, however, a fact about human culture.

One of the clear reactions to the moments contained in the "pantheon of environmental disasters" has been modern environmentalism. In particular, this movement has demanded that industry be forced to operate within some checks and balances, usually coming from a federal or state organization. That wasn't always there, and in the environmental field you really date that to the 1970s when that consciousness arises. Changes in these expectations came from events such as an oil spill off Santa Barbara, the contamination of Lake Erie and the toxic waste dump at Love Canal [in Niagara Falls, N.Y.]. Those kinds of events very clearly spurred a new consciousness and new expectations on behalf of the American people.

I think the Gulf Spill is that same kind of moment. Our reaction could help to make sure accidents like this do not happen again; however, there is a larger opportunity here. As the president pointed out during his prime-time address, it's not a stretch to say accidents happen less if we need less oil. The opportunity here is to take on the staggering concept of shifting our energy infrastructure away from hydrocarbons, particularly petroleum, and to create a national strategy.

Energy and oil issues can be very divisive. How might the current administration and others use this situation as a catalyzing moment?

Black: There are some really interesting dots that can be connected here for the American people that could help with an energy transition that has been going on for the last few decades.

Suffice to say, we are living in a very politically charged and divided time, so the opportunity for dramatic action by a president is probably quite limited. I found President Obama's recent statements clearly appealing to what a lot of people wanted to hear. But for Americans who are the most frustrated and ready for change, the president didn't wave the magic wand that they hoped he would. Of more immediate significance, his efforts seem to stress corporate accountability. The effort to then additionally connect this moment to an energy transition, and ideas like cap-and-trade and carbon accounting, that's a huge leap. That kind of connection is not one a president can simply announce. It is one for which the American people need to be prepared and ready. We have seen indications that clearly many political leaders would like to use this as a moment to move in that direction. They also realize that is a very politically charged issue. You don't want to look like you're exploiting this moment but you also want to begin the processes for making it have lasting significance.

Oil spills happen frequently in places such as South America and Africa, yet we do not hear much about them. Why do you suppose that is?

Black: When you talk about petroleum you are considering the single largest component of what we call "conspicuous consumption," which has led the developed world to live in a way that the undeveloped world couldn't even imagine. Ironically, oil is often found in less-developed countries that don't have much use for it themselves. Those are the places, like Nigeria, where we see spills going on and the corporate responsibility is not there. When you are dealing with that in a country that doesn't have an EPA or really even a government to broker any power against the large corporation developing its resource, there's not going to be any accountability.

While we would not wish anything like this spill on anyone, the U.S. demands more petroleum than any other consumer. Often, the impact of oil development, such as spills, has been on less-developed countries. With the Gulf Spill, we are suffering from the bad side of our own dependence. I think all Americans would agree we don't like it and we are demanding this company be held responsible. There have been lots of instances all over the world when it has been American companies who were in BP's position. As we view the Gulf Spill from the vantage point of the impacted party, maybe it is also time to rethink how our companies operate internationally.

Although there are immediate and long-term problems to be dealt with relating to the Gulf spill, it is also crucial to remember that it can function as a catalyst for change, whether it may be in the form of new patterns of energy use or revised expectations of corporate responsibility.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010