Oil Spill Begs Questions of Sustainability

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The Gulf Coast remains in a catastrophic state nearly two months after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig sank. The drilling rig, owned by Swiss drilling company Transocean, was leased to the petrochemical giant, British Petroleum (BP). Law requires BP to assume the mounting clean-up costs, multiple lawsuits, and overall responsibility for the spill.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 barrels of oil (roughly 210,000 gallons) are flowing into the ocean each day. Multiple attempts to stop the oil flow have proven to be largely unsuccessful and experts believe that it could take weeks to find an appropriate and lasting solution. The BP oil spill has quickly become the largest in U.S. history, eclipsing the renowned Exxon-Valdez spill of 1989. Such crises call into question the role of oil within the environment, the economy, and everyday life.

Oil and the natural environment are like oil and water—the two are better separate. In many Gulf areas, oil has reached sensitive shore and wetland areas, posing a threat to individual species and the ecosystem at large. The oozing oil has the capacity to disrupt the delicate nesting patterns of many fish, birds, and other coastal creatures, jeopardizing the future of entire species. Rescue organizations have been working around the clock to monitor animals both big and small, from sea turtles and dolphins to gulls and hermit crabs. Unfortunately, relief efforts cannot cover the entire span of the spill and thousands of animals have perished.

While ecosystems are threatened by the spill, so are the livelihoods of many humans who rely on the coastal landscape as a source of income. The Gulf Coast is a prime spot for recreational and commercial oyster, crab, fish, and shrimp harvesting, as well as eco-tourism, birding, and other outdoor activities. Emergency bans on harvesting have stifled the economies of all coastal industries and have left approximately 12,000 individuals out of work for an indefinite period of time, according to The Economist. Interestingly enough, some coastal workers have assumed temporary jobs cleaning up the expansive spill.

To put the spill in perspective on a larger economic scale, the smaller Exxon-Valdez oil spill generated economic losses between $4.9 and $7.2 billion dollars. The total cost of the Deepwater Spill remains to be determined but is expected to be much greater.

Oil drives our lives on a daily basis and in today’s society it is impossible to entirely remove oneself from fossil fuel use. Everything—from the food we eat to the clothing we wear—relies on fossil fuels in one way or another. However, a crisis as pertinent as the current spill questions the future of all fossil fuels within society.

Fossil fuels are going by the wayside as an acceptable energy source. Alternatives such as wind, hydroelectric, solar, and geothermal energies are becoming increasingly popular on both small and large scales. While such alternatives are typically replacements for coal, technologies including hydrogen and electricity are on the rise to replace oil within the automotive industry. Many of the large petroleum companies are looking to move beyond fossil fuels and have made investments in renewable energy development and projects. According to BP’s website, the corporation proudly proclaims that the BP acronym stands for “Beyond Petroleum.”

The BP oil spill confirms the overwhelming need to wean the United States and the rest of the world away from fossil fuel dependency. Small steps from the greater public can support conservation and renewable energy efforts: buying local, opting to pay a few dollars more on monthly energy bills to support renewable energy sources, and partaking in environmental conservation activities. These small steps signal to the government and to corporations an interest and commitment in reducing fossil fuel dependency and preserving the environment.

Leonardo Academy is one organization that has made a strong commitment to both land and water preservation through their Valley Ridge Preserve. Valley Ridge Preserve is a 145-acre parcel located in the rolling hills of Richland County, Wisconsin. More than three quarters of the farm is woodlands and the remainder is composed of former farm fields. These fields and other suitable areas are being restored to native prairie vegetation gradually as funding becomes available. Leonardo Academy is working to restore the Preserve lands to native woodland, oak savanna and prairie vegetation over time and to use the property as a demonstration area modeling sustainable land management practices for other land owners.

Land and water conservation efforts such as Leonardo Academy’s highlight the importance of maintaining a balance between humans and the natural world. In times of crisis like the Deepwater Horizon spill, natural areas become even more significant by acting as a model and target for restoration efforts elsewhere.

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