Of Oil—and Water

By Pam Daniel July 1, 2010

In 2006, St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman won a first-place award for in-depth reporting from the Florida Magazine Association for a story he wrote for us about near-shore oil drilling. Hurricane Katrina had hit the year before, disrupting oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and sending gas prices soaring, and that, Pittman reported, was changing Florida’s staunch opposition to drilling in the eastern Gulf. Florida governor Jeb Bush, who had vigorously opposed such drilling during his campaign, was now endorsing it; and a number of national politicians, such as Rep. John Peterson of Pennsylvania, were promising the modern safeguards meant that

we could drill “without having any adverse impact on the environ-ment—none.”

That was hard to believe after reading Pittman’s piece, which documented the effects drilling was already having in the Gulf. As part of the drilling process, the rigs pour a toxic stew of drilling mud and other byproducts into the water, resulting in intense mercury and other contamination in nearby seabeds and fish. Then there are the spills—frequent small ones and the occasional monster.

Pittman described the most monstrous of them all, Ixtoc I. In 1979, a rig off the northern coast of Mexico blew out, ignited and collapsed. It took more than a year to cap the well, which spewed out 3 million barrels of oil. Some of that oil coated the Texas beaches and formed tar “reefs” offshore that broke up in storms and sent tar balls back on shore for years to come.

Now, just four years later, Pittman is covering an eerily similar disaster, one much closer to home. A few weeks after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, the Times flew him to his hometown of Pensacola, where he talked to residents who were preparing for the worst. On a late-night flight home, in a dark and bumpy little airplane, he got out his notebook and wrote about walking down to a blustery Panhandle beach that afternoon and reflecting on what he’d seen. His “Last Look,” page 60, makes it clear just what is at stake for our state.

I told Pittman about a Sarasota Tiger Bay Club forum on near-shore drilling I attended about a year ago. One of the panelists was state Sen. Nancy Detert, a moderate Republican who’s known for her common-sense approach. Detert said that when she went to neighborhood meetings and asked her constituents how many supported drilling, “almost all the hands go up.” And she, too, was coming around to that mindset, she said, in large part because oil companies had convinced her that today’s technology was fail-safe. We heard the same assurances last winter, when a fire on a rig caused a disastrous spill off Australia. Lobbyists and politicians assured us that couldn’t happen on a new rig equipped with the latest technology.

“Except it did,” said Pittman. And when it did happen, it turned out that BP had bored full speed ahead on techniques for extracting oil from mile-deep water—while neglecting to develop technology to clean up the kinds of spills that could result.

Put it down to greed, if you like—or maybe it’s just human nature. As Pittman says, “We have such faith in our own abilities, but any human endeavor is subject to disasters.”

And though investigation into the spill is revealing that BP is guilty of all sorts of hubris, mistakes and dangerous shortcuts, we’re the ones with the insatiable appetite for oil. More than 3,300 other rigs are out there drilling away in the Gulf right now, and we’re also filling our cars and air-conditioning our homes with oil from countries that have few environmental and safety regulations. In Nigeria alone, there’s been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969—but that’s not in our back yard or on our news cycle.

Given that we’re not going to shut off the oil faucets any time soon, what can we do? Pittman says the answers aren’t sexy—but they’re obvious. “If we acknowledge that there are going to be accidents, we have to develop better safety procedures to make them less likely and make it easier to clean up if they do happen,” he says. He also says we must develop policies that encourage conservation—“conservation can really make a difference,” he emphasizes—and the creation of alternative energy.

Of course, he’s right. But can we summon the personal and national will to make that happen? I worry about the outcry that will result from any policy that involves self-denial or—horror!—new taxes. And I also worry about whether our leaders, who are so fiercely invested in opposing political perspectives, will come together to create intelligent, effective solutions.

A week or so after the spill, I was at the gym, watching the bank of TVs on the wall while working out on the elliptical machine. On one screen, a politician declared that we should proceed full speed ahead with drilling, but should “absolutely investigate whether safety failures could ever occur.” I looked at the next screen, which showed a volunteer holding a bird blackened by oil and images of the burning rig. We’re not just talking about alternate opinions here, but alternate realities.

Meanwhile, as I write this, the oil continues to gush into the Gulf. “The Gulf can absorb a lot of punishment, and has for years,” says Pittman. “But there is a limit to how much it can take.” The enormous dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi, he says “may be an indication that it has taken all it can—and now we’re dumping in all this oil and those chemical dispersements.”

You’ll find more reasons in this issue to protect our local waters—that dazzling, aquamarine curve of Gulf and bays edged by white, white sand that just about stops your heart every time your plane swoops in for a Sarasota landing. In “Rowing Rules,” we spotlight the new rowing facility that will draw more than 10,000 professional and college athletes and fans to a giant lake in Benderson Park this year. And you’ll glide along under the stars on our shimmering bays with county Parks and Recreation head John McCarthy, who likes to spend his summer nights in his hand-built kayak, discovering snoozing manatees and other natural wonders.

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