Spending the weekend in the Mississippi Gulf, I marveled at its sheer beauty. The weather was hot, and the ocean was gorgeous. The beaches looked pristine. Then, when I looked a little closer, I saw men wearing vests, little white tents and lots of plastic bags. The BP cleanup crews work from dawn to dusk cleaning up the oil from the beautiful beaches. They are there every day, and when you see them you know that oil has washed up on the shore. It hasn't stopped people from playing on the beaches. But not too many people venture into the water, and if they do they don't swim far out.
Mississippi is lucky because the state has gambling. Alabama does not, and the tourists left when the oil came. Even with the gambling, business is down. Taxi drivers, lawyers and shop owners all say business is lacking. It is not just from the tourists but also from others who have lost jobs because of the fishing and other ocean-dependent jobs. They are out the cash now, and it is difficult to wait for BP's claims process.
Like most Americans who do not focus on the oil industry, I learned that drilling in those deep waters could cause huge problems like I saw in the Gulf this weekend. Drilling from land or drilling in shallow water would be a lot safer, I reasoned. My ignorance was challenged this week when the National Wildlife Federation published its report this week titled "Assault On America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution and Profit."
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The report lists spills and other oil-related disasters year by year since 2000. Some such as pipeline spills are to be expected and are often contained rather quickly. Others scared the living daylights out of me.
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The story that stayed with me this whole week was the story of a family camping trip in Carlsbad, N.M. Three families went camping and chose a site where a natural-gas pipeline was buried. While they were sleeping, the pipeline exploded beneath them and created a 500-foot fireball. Firefighters put out the fire. When they heard cries for help, they found 12 people, including children, whose bodies were charred. Most were already dead, and the rest died later.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, this occurred because there was a "significant reduction in pipe wall thickness due to severe internal corrosion." With almost a half million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States, it is only a matter of time before more accidents happen. With few indications as to where these pipelines are buried, hikers and campers are taking a risk every time they explore the great outdoors.
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Also, documented in the "Assault On America" report are tank explosions, river oil spills and estimates that as many as 25 percent of the 800,000 underground tanks at gas stations have had known leaks contaminating groundwater. When you add a barge exploding in New York, accidents with fuel-carrying trucks and the Texas City BP oil refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 people, it becomes clear that our search for oil has major consequences that most of us barely notice. The cost of these accidents goes beyond the initial cleanup costs. The impact on our entire country is huge.
The report also recommends eliminating the cap on oil and gas company liability for damages caused by oil and gas disasters. It also recommends a reform of the royalty structure for oil and gas leases on federal land. With oil companies making $150 billion in after-tax profits in 2009, they certainly can afford to pay more in damages and for use of our precious federal lands.
Laws can make the oil companies realize that there is a price to carelessness, but nothing can have the impact that ending our dependence on oil and gas can. Fuel-efficient cars, high-speed rail and hybrid technology all can impact on the reduction of spills and accidents. We do not need to be brain surgeons to know that there is only one solution to this problem: We need to pull our heads out of the sand (and oil) and begin to move to sustainable energy development.