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Gough: War in the Gulf of America

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It is not a “spill.” It is, in fact, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Fishermen call it simply “horrifying.” Incalculable amounts of the hydrocarbon life-blood of our industrial age are gushing forth from the underwater bowels of the earth, churning through the inky depths in vast plumes and roiling to the surface, only to drift on the tides in thousands of long mats of sticky sludge towards the shorelines of North America’s largest estuary and one of our richest fisheries before heading up the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Coast is where about 50 percent of our shrimp, 40 percent of the oysters, 35 percent of blue crabs, and 25 percent of all fin-fish come from. Fumes of volatized petroleum constituents, broken down by the sun and the toxic dispersant called “Corexit” will bring more than tears to your eyes. It may bring acid rain to the entire southeastern United States and create bioaccumulation up the food chain for many years to come.

Neither our regulations nor our technologies for handling these worst-case scenarios have kept up with our energy overreach.

The indigenous peoples of the Americas, with a longer memory, greater affinity for, and reliance upon the natural bounty of the Earth obtained through hunting, fishing and gathering, have grounds to take issue with this appraisal as merely the latest in an escalating series of “industrial accidents” wrought upon this planet by our pre-occupation with extraction and combustion.

We could consider global climate change, precipitated by the carbon we intentionally burn to drive our unsustainable lifestyles, or a bit more locally, the industrial flowage of urban waste and rural run-off embedded in the sediment and carried along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to be dumped in the Gulf at a rate of 3.3 million gallons per second which have caused “dead zones” in the Gulf the size of New Jersey. But this British Petroleum rupture provides a more easily identified “point source” for war in the Gulf of America.

What is the long-term “take away” from the current Gulf of America oil catastrophe? Should it be the criminally tragic loss of 11 more lives on the altar of fossil fuels? Should it be the three-way finger pointing by BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives, like some circular firing squad of blame that began while their other hands were still in the air swearing to tell Congress the truth this time? Or the live underwater video coverage of the broken well-pipe and blowout preventer bubbling a mile below the oil-slicked surface like some iconic cauldron of trouble spewing a toxic brew of crude, methane and heavy mud into one of America’s richest marine habitats?

Perhaps it is the heartbreaking images of oil-soaked, chocolate brown pelicans, only recently removed from the list of endangered species, dripping like some prehistoric Easter confection. Or is it the shimmering slicks surrounding the brown globs of crude floating on the waves, or the blood-red tar globs coming to rest on white sandy beaches hundreds of miles away from the deep-sea gusher? Or might it be the mind-numbing guesstimates of exactly how much crude has hemorrhaged from the seafloor over the seven weeks since Earth Day. Is it 21 to 46 million gallons a day? Or is it 500,000 or a million barrels? Imagine what the total may be by the time the hole is finally plugged next week, or in August, or by Christmas. Each week it dwarfs the Exxon Valdez spill.

What is the long-term ‘take away’ from the current Gulf of America oil catastrophe?

Sadly, I am personally not surprised at these events. Perhaps it is because I grew up further north along the Gulf Stream on the Raritan Bay in the traditional homelands of the Lenape. In the late 1950s and ’60s, there was an endless parade of tankers – sitting low in the water, ladened with crude from the other Gulf we are now occupying – bound for the refineries of Standard Oil of New Jersey (then ESSO, then EXXON and now Exxon-Mobile). They repeatedly spilled untold quantities of what turned into “tanker-turds” that despoiled the clamming, crabbing and fishing I had previously enjoyed in family clam bakes on the beach every summer as a kid.

The Deepwater Horizon was simply one of 3,858 oil and gas platforms in this reach of the Gulf sucking out industrial ooze from underwater depths that might have been classified as unobtainable but for the regulatory waivers provided by the same agency that has been keeping watch over conventional Indian energy resources for the last century or more. Neither our regulations nor our technologies for handling these worst-case scenarios have kept up with our energy overreach.

I write this in the pre-dawn hours, heavily breathing in the salty, sultry breezes from the Galveston beach, having enjoyed a fine meal of local shrimp and crab while here with the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy executive leadership to explore additional wind and transmission support for an intertribal wind project in the Great Plains, and to participate in meetings to further the role of tribal colleges in addressing community resilience in the face of climate change.

Tribes across this country anxiously await a few necessary federal policy changes that would promote the development of numerous wind, solar and other renewable energy projects on the lands and in the hands of the original stewards of this continent. The Interior and Energy departments have a wonderful chance to positively support tribal economic development that could secure a just transition from our addiction to peaking and life-threatening conventional resources and towards a national clean energy economy.

The Interior and Energy departments have a wonderful chance to positively support tribal economic development.

This part of the western Gulf is fortunately not directly imperiled by the current disaster unfolding only a few hundred miles to the east, but it easily could be. The fishermen here, like so many in Louisiana, Mississippi and soon Alabama and Florida – including numerous indigenous communities with and without federal recognition but still dependent upon fragile marine eco-systems – understand how horribly easy a way of life and culture, built over countless generations can now be threatened, compromised and utterly destroyed by a dead battery, a faulty concrete well housing, a disabled blowout preventer, a malfunctioning valve, or inadequate regulation and oversight for deep-sea energy extraction.

I am heartened to hear that the chair of the Oglala Lakota has called for tribes to come to the aid of the indigenous communities along the Gulf waters. Neither the ironies nor the heartbreak are lost on the rest of Indian country.

Bob Gough is secretary of the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy. He divides his time between South Dakota and Colorado working on wind power and straw-bale construction.