The BP oil spill and you

A group of expert panelists gathered on Tuesday, Oct. 26 to discuss what the BP oil spill means to the future of American energy.

The British Petroleum oil rig exploded six months ago, killing 11 people and sending a steady stream of panic into the Gulf of Mexico region, and yet the nation is still grappling with the aftermath with no end in sight.

As part of Syracuse’s University Lecture Series, a panel discussion was held on Oct. 26 titled, “Blowout: What the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Means for You and the Future of American Energy.” NPR’s science correspondent Joe Palca moderated panelists from a wide range of perspectives: Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, Kishi Animashaun Ducre, a professor of African-American studies at SU, Matt Huber, an assistant professor of geography at SU and Christopher Scholz, an SU professor of earth sciences.

Who is to blame?

“This disaster is merely a spectacular version of business as usual,” Clarke said, an expert in worst-case scenarios. BP’s emergency plan - along with many other oil companies’ -- was based on what Clarke refers to as “fantasy documents.”

“They claim that organizations and experts have things under control, when nothing could be further from the truth,” Clarke said. BP’s emergency plan stated that in a worst-case scenario, it would take a mere two months to clean up, when oil continued to gush into the Gulf unabated for at least three months after the rig exploded. Scholz added that the emergency contact they had listed had been dead for five years.

Producing oil from offshore, deep-water rigs is extremely dangerous, which both BP and the government use as reason to justify the lack of regulation provided by the U.S. Mineral Management Service. The United States is so dependent on oil that the government is hesitant to regulate production intensively, and the oil companies are concerned about profits, Clarke said. “The motto is go, go, go, drill baby, drill. Safety takes a backseat to production every time,” he said.

Environmental Damage

The environmental damage to the surface and coastal regions of the Gulf was easily visible. The spill affected “one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet,” Scholz said, killing or injuring thousands of animals and destroying wet lands and coastlines along the Gulf. “But what is much more difficult to the effect of the spill in deep water,” Scholz said. It will take years to study the long-term effects, especially on the food chain, he said.

One immediate solution to the spill proposed by BP is a common one: dump more chemicals, called dispersants, into the water to break up the oil. But the amount BP attempted to use was unprecedented. “1.3 million gallons of dispersants were injected directly into the Gulf,” Scholz said. “And those chemicals are 10,000 times more toxic than the oil.”

Kishi Animashaun Ducre also pointed out the effects the spill had on livelihoods in the Gulf area. Ducre has been an advocate for environmental policy in Louisiana since she worked there with Greenpeace in the 1990s. The region is racially segregated, she said, and many of the African-American communities reside in “chemical towns” - places with fewer resources that are more prone to chemical leaks or spills.

Oil companies such as Shell are so prevalent in these communities that their harmful effects are felt more. “Some people win and some people lose,” Ducre said. “And in these communities... those are the people that lose,” Ducre said.

Student reactions to the panel were overall positive. A few students took full advantage of the Q & A session to talk about their own concerns after Joe Palca jokingly told them to ask questions and not lecture. “I’ll cut you off - I’m good at that,” Palca said. And he was.

Chris Wood, a graduate mechanical engineering student at SU and a SUNY-ESF alumnus, said many of the questions seemed too broad or complex for panelists to give a clear answer or spark a heated discussion.

 “I did hear a lot of interesting insight from the panel,” Wood said. “But, like public opinion, they had a habit of focusing on concepts and problems rather than actual solutions.”

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