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MacDonald: Damage from Gulf Disaster Will Last Lifetime

Can there be anything good to come out of the BP oil spill? In his June 15 speech, President Obama committed to “a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.” I am grateful for the plan but ultimately skeptical about whether restoration can really succeed in my lifetime.

Cody Fonseca (left) and his brother Chris sort through blue crab caught in the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary at the La Blue Crab Company on May 3, 2010 in Larose, Louisiana,
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Cody Fonseca (left) and his brother Chris sort through blue crab caught in the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary at the La Blue Crab Company on May 3, 2010 in Larose, Louisiana,

A year or so from now, the well will be plugged; the television crews will be gone from Louisiana bayou country; the white sands of the Pensacola beaches will be mostly clear of visible oil; and some glib spokesperson for BP will appear on camera—perhaps even on CNBC—to proclaim, “See, thanks to BP’s unstinting expenditure of many billions of dollars, the region has bounced back.”

This is what was said by oil industry apologists about Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill. It was untrue then and it will be untrue a year from now.

Despite all the skimmers and sweepers, most of the oil sinks to the bottom or washes up on the shore and then sinks down in shallow layers below the sand, profoundly restructuring the ecosystem. The change cannot be undone in a lifetime.

On a Gulf of Mexico coastline, thousands of species that burrow into the bottom—crabs and worms, snails and clams, fish and sea stars—will now find layers of toxic sludge. Many will die, breaking part of the food chain.

Shore birds and sport fish, oysters and shrimp will still exist, but in fewer numbers. This is what happened in Prince William Sound, where twenty years after Exxon there are still too few herring to support a fishery, fewer herring for the salmon to eat, fewer salmon for bears to eat.

So even when the tourists come back to the beaches, they will be returning to a lesser Gulf of Mexico—no matter how much money BP spreads around. And many of the small businesses that depend on a healthy gulf, that pay directly into our economy through tourism and tax dollars, will not make it. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never put Humpty Dumpty together again.

I write these words not in despair, but in the hope that a lesson will be learned. We derive great benefits from healthy ecosystems, but mostly we don’t pay for these benefits. In fact, many corporations reap profits by exploiting the ecosystems that should be considered the common heritage of all humankind.

How might we pay in the future for the privilege of an economy and culture based on hydrocarbon fuel? We could begin by making ourselves pay the true, full cost of oil. This cost includes the risk of catastrophe.

For years, the oil companies have pointed to the economic risks of deep-water oil production and convinced Congress to excuse them from paying royalties and taxes. They prepared for that kind of risk by accruing record profits year after year and cutting costs wherever possible.

What they did not prepare for was what happened when the well exploded on April 20. Then it turned out that they had no equipment, no plan, and no experience that could begin to cope. They should have earned smaller profits and charged a higher price for their oil to prevent and prepare for a catastrophic event. And we should have been willing to pay more as well.

No price is enough to buy back what has been lost, but perhaps we can pay enough to invest in a future beyond a total dependence on oil.

You can watch more of MacDonald's comments about oil exploration and the energy industry during a CNBC special presentation, "America's Crude Reality,"Wednesday, June 30 at 8pm ET, hosted by Melissa Francis.

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Ian MacDonald Ph.D. is oceanographer and professor at Florida State University. He is an internationally recognized authority on the biology and geology of marine oil seeps with some 65 peer-reviewed articles and over 60 reports and popular articles on related topics. In 2003, he was co-leader of a joint German, Mexican, U.S. expedition that discovered asphalt volcanism in the southern Gulf of Mexico. MacDonald’s research has entailed extensive use of such deep-diving submarines as Johnson Sea-Link, Alvin, and the Navy nuclear submarine NR-1. Altogether he has spent a total of 60 continuous days at depths of 1800 feet or more in the Gulf of Mexico. MacDonald can be reached at imacdonald@fsu.edu