Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, recalls leading an investigation into the effects of two oil spills off the Panamanian coast in the late 1980s.
The spills were minor, a mere two million gallons in total. The Deepwater Horizon wellhead ejects two million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, Jackson found that two million gallons was all it took to destroy mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs along 55 miles of coastline. Some 25 years later, the Panamanian coast is still struggling to get back to something like normal, despite an intensive effort to hand-plant mangrove seedlings one-by-one on the coast.
President Obama compared Deepwater Horizon to 9/11. It's an apt comparison to me if only in the sense that in watching footage of each event, the mind can't easily comprehend the totality of what the eyes are seeing.
It is now clear that BP simply wasn't ready for this. It wasn't required to be ready for this, so it wasn't. It may be proven in court that it failed to do even the little that it was required to do by law, but that's a topic for another day.
The problem I see is more with the rest of us. For years scientists have called for more balanced management of the oceans. The years of inaction on this front suggest that few in society have understood the value of striking such a balance. Is it not remarkable that in a matter of weeks, the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history has been joined in the headlines by a 120-square-mile patch of oxygen-eating algae off China's coast? There is also news that an analysis of sperm whale tissue samples collected between 2000 and 2005 revealed incredibly high levels of industrial metals -- including mercury and chromium -- in their bodies. The results reported by the conservation group Ocean Alliance showed that the whales likely acquired these metals in polar regions far away from human populations. That suggests that no part of the ocean, regardless of how remote, is immune to contamination. The quantities of pollutants measured further suggests that the large fishes that we like to eat are storing even higher levels of these hazardous metals than we thought.
In the case of Gulf of Mexico oil exploration, the search for a resource that might be obsolete a century from now has profoundly trumped the safeguarding of needs that will last as long as there's a United States. For years there's been a need for a national oceans policy that has as its first principle preserving the viability of the seas. It's hard to imagine a better entree to re-introduce that argument.
Jackson describes our addiction to oil as a form of blackmail and our attitude toward regulation as cowboy. Norway, he noted in a recent radio interview, requires that relief wells be in place before oil extraction begins. In the United States, there is no such insurance policy.
The pile of reasons for getting off oil is stacked high: global warming, air pollution, bankrolling of terrorist organizations, the money well that keeps regimes hostile to us in power. Remove any one of those and the pile's structural integrity remains.
That wasn't even counting oil spills. It had been so long since Exxon Valdez that it never seemed a salient point until now. Now it's clear the threat of Deepwater Horizon incidents by itself is a reason to accelerate the weaning process.
Monroe is editor of UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography Explorations online magazine.