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Deepwater Scars in the Southland

September 3, 2010

Ana Kostioukuva
Deepwater Scars in the Southland

Journalists, scientists and politicians often measure the Gulf Oil Spill by the number of barrels lost or gallons spilled.  Unfortunately, it is rare that we speak of it in the terms of a human cost: if the oil was instead harvested it could support the average lifestyle of one million people. BP lost a small U.S. state worth of revenue a day by virtue of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While a million Americans lost the potential energy usage of those barrels of nonrenewable energy. Obviously, it is a lose-lose situation for all. The greatest impact will nonetheless be felt by the Gulf Coast. Consequences associated with oil exploration and drilling have long plagued these states. People here may have become accustomed to these injustices, yet their patience is wearing thin.

Living in the South for this past summer has made one thing clear—  the Gulf Coastal states feel marginalized, and perhaps rightfully so, considering that Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are among the poorest states in our nation. A human development study conducted by Oxfam comparing states in matters of health, education, and income concluded “that people in last-ranked Mississippi are living 30 years behind those in first-ranked Connecticut.” Similar results are shown for other coastal states. Revenues from offshore oil royalties would supply more than enough resources to develop schools, hospitals and other institutions.  Yet the 37.5 percent of shares allotted to the states in 2006, including $650 million per year to Louisiana alone, are not to begin until 2017.  Until then, the coastal states will feel the effects, yet none of the benefits, of offshore oil drilling. With the fishing industry crippled, a moratorium on oil drilling and BP’s lag with paying clean-up volunteers, too many have lost their sources of income. Residents' reactions range from outrage to apocalyptic hysteria. Their very livelihoods have been destroyed by the largest marine water oil spill ever.

As the summer of disaster winds to a close, locals are concerned with more than simply making ends meet.   Hurricane season threatens to shake up the damaged region yet again, and human development has worn away at the coastal wetlands that naturally provide flood control.

Coastal wetlands act as ‘horizontal levees’ by weakening a hurricane as it makes its way towards inland cities. Ultimately, these natural storm buffers are the best and most effective method of hurricane protection. However, the coastal land loss in Louisiana alone is staggering. As described in a story by National Geographic, “despite nearly half a billion dollars spent over the past decade to stem the tide, the state continues to lose about 25 square miles (64.7 square kilometers) of land each year, roughly one acre (4,000 square meters) every 33 minutes.”

Since canal digging began nearly 60 years ago, for petroleum exploration and ship traffic, a dangerous doze of salt water has been introduced into the fresh water marshes. In native vegetation such as cypress trees, roots are unable to hold onto soil in salt water, which leads to erosion. Fresh layers of river sediment are no longer deposited from the Mississippi to replenish this loss. Levees are the culprits. They force sediment past soil starved marshes into deep ocean waters.  These same levees, that exist to protect the city of New Orleans, were deemed by a national panel of experts as  ‘designed to fail’ and responsible for most of the $81 billion worth in damages associated with Hurricane Katrina.

The BP oil spill isn’t good news for anyone. This spill will doubtlessly echo for many more years in its impacts on our environment, energy and seafood cravings. However, the people living in this mess are the ones who suffer and will suffer the most.  But is it a coincidence that the poor, less educated of the world, in this case the United States, are stuck bearing the environmental injustices of natural resource exploitation? Are natural resources coincidentally found only in the poorest of the world’s regions, or are there other factors guiding the decision of drilling in one place versus another?

Admittedly, the Gulf of Mexico makes up the largest chunk of the 115.1 billion barrels of total untapped crude oil available on Federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) territory. However, in the same surveys done by the Mineral Management Service (MMS) and United States Geological Survey (USGS), it was found that the Los Angeles area contains sizable onshore and offshore oil fields. To be more specific, the southern California coast reserves are comparable to that of western coastal Florida oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, not too far from the location Deepwater Horizon was operating. In addition, the New England coastline sports an equally promising potential sites for offshore drilling. What are the chances that companies would start drilling on those sites once the Gulf of Mexico is drained of petroleum? I can post this question another way— is it just as easy to exploit wealthier and more well-educated states as it is the poorest in our nation?

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