On the way back from visiting the pelican rookery in Barataria Bay, our boat cuts though an inlet that is crowded with barges and supply ships headed out to the blowout site. The inlet is a vulnerable point in the barrier islands, the place where the Gulf meets the bay, the place where oil-laden waters can gain access to fragile marshlands. To protect the inner bay, Gov. Jindal and other local leaders want to build rock barriers across inlets like this one. "It's a very bad idea," says Denise Reed, a coastal scientist at the University of New Orleans. Reed explains that barriers, which interrupt the natural currents that flush the bay, are likely to do far more harm than good. Not that Jindal really cares – he is out to score political points against the Obama administration for its mishandling of the Gulf spill. But the widespread frustration directed at Washington is not misplaced. For a president who has promised to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch," there is not a lot of it on display in the Gulf. From the initial permitting of BP's well to the ongoing cleanup, the oil spill has been a story of federal ineptitude and corruption in the face of corporate greed and power.
As we cut across the bay, it's hard not to feel the overwhelming tragedy of the place – not just the acrid smell of oil in the air and the islands of weathered crude in the bay, but the fact that this entire region has been turned into a sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry. It's the water-world equivalent of the Appalachian Mountains, where Big Coal reigns supreme. Still, the resiliency of nature is surprising. We cut the engine and drift through a pod of dolphins frolicking in the bay – mothers and calves surface beside the boat. I hear the dolphins exhaling as they surface. A few sound like they are coughing – scientists who study dolphins call it "chuffing," and it is not uncommon among dolphins reacting to environmental stress.
Once the blowout is capped for good, an accounting will begin. Steiner, the veteran of the Valdez response, estimates that when all is said and done, less than 10 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf will be recovered. Lawyers will fight for years over exactly how much oil was spilled, how large the penalties should be, how much economic damage was done. It's easy enough to figure out the lost wages of a shrimper, the decline of tourism at a resort – but how do you put a price tag on hundreds of dead sea turtles or a pod of chuffing dolphins? How do you tally up a bill for the poisoning of an entire ecosystem? How do you track the future pain and suffering – human and animal – caused by exposure to cancer-causing chemicals? BP will spend millions of dollars on the best lawyers in the business, all in an effort to make sure that the answers to such questions, if they ever come, are as small and distant and insignificant as possible.
As for political reforms, every oil spill – like every coal-mine disaster and airline crash – provokes new laws and regulations designed to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. There will undoubtedly be new laws enacted in the aftermath of BP's spill – raising the liability for oil companies responsible for such catastrophes, ensuring that more cleanup resources are on hand in the event of a blowout, perhaps even putting some of the most pristine and sensitive waters off-limits to drilling. But if that is where it ends, then this will turn out to be an ugly story indeed, just one more chapter in the larger narrative about America's stupid and self-destructive addiction to oil.
"This can be the pivotal moment," says ecologist Carl Safina. "We need to turn this catastrophe into something positive. We need policy changes to prevent this from happening again, and a national energy plan to truly phase us off fossil fuels. Otherwise, the disaster in the Gulf is just a nightmare, with no redeeming qualities."
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