Scientists: Don't "Squander" Lesson of Oil Spill

In a Wednesday, May 19, 2010 photo, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and La. Gov. Bobby Jindal tour through the Roseau Grasses that mark the coastline of Southeast Louisiana at Pass a Loutre at the mouth of the Mississippi River where oil has washed ashore. AP/Ted Jackson, Times-Picayune

Environmental scientists speaking before a House subcommittee said that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was "inevitable," and that the lack of preparedness for dealing with the massive spill was indicative of the nation's wrong-headed approach to energy.

At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, scientists said fossil fuels were "deceptively cheaper," and that extracting those resources was actually more costly than alternatives like solar, wind and hydropower when also taking into account the impacts on the environment, local economies, and lives lost.

Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, said the Mississippi Delta, which had just been recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, is "a place still in a lot of pain ... and now, this."

He described the oil now reaching the Louisiana marshlands from the site of BP's destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig as having a consistency "between axel grease and peanut butter, but unlike peanut butter it doesn't dissolve at all."

He criticized BP's response as "partial and inadequate." But he also said part of the blame could be laid upon a lack of government monitoring and the lack of a comprehensive energy policy.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf
Oil Spill: One Month Later

"That's a mistake," Dr. Safina said. "We need to make this a pivotal moment for our energy policy, where we understand that going deeper in more risky ways will mean this will happen again.

"We need a new diversified, clean energy basis for our economy, and we need to get out in front of China or Germany. Whoever owns the new sources of energy will own the future economy."

He said unless the event changes the way America acquires and uses energy - just as other horrific events have altered American policy - it will be "a squandered disaster."

When asked what he would ask BP about dealing with this spill, Dr. Safina said, "I think asking BP for answers is the wrong place to look. They seem to have cut corners on some critical junctures."

"I'm not interested in saying anything to them - they blew it," Dr. Safina said. "Looking to BP for answers, or even asking them questions, that was something for six weeks ago."

He also criticized how BP had withheld information and denied permission to scientists to examine the site of the leak. "This mystifies me because they're on our property now," Safina said.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., concurred: "It's BP's spill, but America's oceans."

Talking of the lack of preparedness by BP in responding to the accident, Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, said, "It doesn't take great imagination to realize why we should fear drilling in the Arctic . . . We should fear lack of preparedness to drill anywhere."

Dr. Earle said a network of monitoring stations (akin to weather observation stations) should be established to monitor the oceans. "More attention clearly needs to be on the biological nature of what is happening, and not just for the next 6 months or a year," she said.

She also said international cooperation with other countries was vital, "Because the Gulf doesn't just stop at our border."

Dr. Carys L. Mitchelmore of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science - Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said that there are "huge holes" in our understanding of the fate of the disbursed oil. "We're in uncharted territories," she said.

Dr. Mitchelmore said toxicology experiments on the effects of oil and disbursent chemicals have on life forms and ecosystems in the Gulf are extremely limited, and studied only short-term exposure. She said there is a potential for bioaccumulation of the chemicals - that they will passed up through the food chain - and cautioned that there have been studies that show dispersed oil - broken down into smaller droplets - is more likely to be taken in.

Dr. Safina said it wasn't clear why dispersing chemicals are being used to break up the oil slick, in effect making it impossible to pick up out of the water.

"It's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy only. It's a PR stunt just to get it away from the cameras and away from the shoreline," he said.

The Gulf region, Dr. Safina said, contains important migratory and breeding grounds for birds from the Southern U.S. to the Arctic, and the spill will have effects reaching as far north as Newfoundland, where gannets nest.

"As a result of the spill, there will be gannet nest sites empty this year," he said.

Dr. Earle also said it was imperative the country shift from burning fossil fuels.

"Cheap oil is not cheap, Dr. Earle said. "Cheap energy is really costing us. How can you say solar, wind, other avenues are more expensive than the lives we've just seen in recent times lost from the extraction of coal and oil?

"If we fail to change directions that's a turning point towards a faster decline of all we hold near and dear - our economy, our health, our security, our very lives," she said.

"If we continue business as usual, we're in real trouble," she said.
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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