By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As we await the landfall of the giant growing BP oil blob, the news compass has been whirling, pointing at a raft of problems related to offshore oil drilling, and a few not related to offshore drilling.

Problem No. 1: Money buys good PR

Yesterday we heard about how The New York Times quoted a fellow with a Texas-based conservation group as saying the oil spill wasn’t so terrible.

“The sky is not falling,” said Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Texas. “We’ve certainly stepped in a hole and we’re going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.”

ProPublica, intrigued by this counter-intuitive remark from a conservation group, looked deeper and found that at least half of the 19 board members running the Gulf of Mexico Foundation have ties to the oil and gas industries, including one who is employed by Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that blew up in the gulf on April 20. See the ProPublica blog for more details.

Problem No. 2: Money buys rubber stamp regulation

Some other significant minimizing about the risks of offshore oil drilling went on last year, when BP won exemptions from a detailed impact study of the Deepwater Horizon operation after government regulators concluded that an oil spill was unlikely, according to a Washington Post story today.

The Minerals Management Service gave BP’s operation a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Protection Act. Earlier assessments by the MMS had found that a major spill from a drilling operation in that vicinity might total 4,600 barrels, according to the Post story, which cited MMS reports.

Which raises the question — can anyone really predict how much oil might be spilled in an accident, given the very nature of such an event?

BP’s deepwater lease has been gushing at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day for two weeks now. Today, the company reported it may have successfully capped the site of the smallest rupture in the oil well some 5,000 feet beneath the surface and about 40 miles off the coast.

Problem No. 3: We’re not spending our money on the right things

There has been an outbreak of discussion about clean energy in the wake of the spill, and the usual remarks that wind power and solar power are not up to the task of replacing any significant amount of our energy needs. These discussions usually note that electric vehicles, even if we put 1 million the road over the next five years as President Obama has asked, would remain a tiny fraction of the 250 million-plus cars actively on the road in the U.S. And that wind power, however wonderful, only supplies a tiny fraction of America’s energy needs.

So let’s take a gas tax and spend it on clean vehicle development.

Let’s tax fossil fuels and shift the money back to taxpayers, and then incentivize them to spend that money on home efficiency and clean energy improvements.

Problem No. 4: We don’t know what we’ve got ’till it’s gone (We also paved over paradise, but that’s a different blog.)

Bird watchers at Grand Isle (Photo: Nature Conservancy)

Bird watchers at Grand Isle (Photo: Nature Conservancy)

People paying a little more attention to the environment than usual this week reported to government officials that birds were falling from the sky near the oil spill.

Alas, the back story there is not one of avarice and ulterior motives. The annual “bird fall out” is a natural occurring event that takes place when migratory birds crossing the gulf from South America keel over near then end of their marathon flight.

This year the rough weather made the navigation even more difficult, leading to “mass drops” that have been reported by citizens concerned these are birds affected by the oil spill.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports: “The term ‘fallout’ refers to birds that are alive and dropping down in big numbers along the migratory path, usually from natural exhaustion during their migration north. It does not mean the birds are falling dead out of the sky. In this case, bird watchers have seen this event in beach areas along the Alabama/Florida Gulf Coast.”

The birds dropping suddenly out of the sky include many small songbirds, who simply drop from exhaustion onto the gulf coast islands and marshes, which for the moment provide a rich, natural habitat with water and food to sustain the birds on the rest of their travels. These refuges could shortly be tarred with oil, making them not such a great bird respite area.

Near Louisiana, many birds needing a break from their migratory journey have been known to drop for a rest on Grand Isle, where the Nature Conservancy has been trying to preserve forest lands before they’re all gone. Even without a major oil spill, the island has been struggling. It contains only a fraction, about 10 percent, of the natural woodlands it once held.

The Conservancy is trying to put into preserve a 17-acre tract that would be the largest live oak-hackberry forest on any gulf coast barrier island.

Just 17 acres. A reminder of what we mean when we talk about the imperiled, sensitive habitat on the gulf coast.

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