Gulf Oil Spill Has Plenty of Precedents

Last Thursday as he announced suspensions on new and existing offshore drilling projects, President Obama called BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “an unprecedented disaster.” In a sense this assessment is right — by most estimates, BP’s oil spill has surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill to become the worst in American history.

But in another and even more tragic sense, Obama’s statement is not quite accurate. The oil industry has set many, many precedents for the disaster in the Gulf. We just aren’t being told about many of them.

The BP Deepwater disaster may now be the nation’s biggest spill, but it’s not yet the biggest ever in North America. That dubious distinction belongs to the Pemex-operated Ixtoc I offshore well, which blew out in 1979 and, over the course of nine months, spewed 3.5 million barrels of crude oil into Mexico’s Campeche Bay.

Yes, you read that right: nine months. Though BP has done its best to hide the true amount of oil pouring into the Gulf the past month and a half, it’s generally now accepted that as much as 19,000 barrels of oil are gushing out every day. If this goes on for seven and a half more months at that rate, the Gulf spill will easily eclipse the Ixtoc I blow out by well over 5 million barrels spilled.

Most tragically, we could probably never determine the worst spill in world history (though there is of course a really long list of spills we know about, many of which were far larger than Exxon Valdez). Big Oil operates in many developing countries with near impunity, where they are not particularly concerned with stopping a spill quickly and are rarely held accountable for cleanup. And because of where these spills are occurring, they get far less attention than a spill 50-miles off the coast of Louisiana.

This dire situation was recently brought home by a post over on Change.org’s Global Poverty blog. As Te-Ping Chen writes, despite the fact that America gets 40% of its oil from Nigeria, the response to spills there there could not be more different than in the U.S. “Nigerians are watching the media frenzy unfold in the U.S. with incredulity,” she reports. “Every year, more oil is spilled in the delta than what’s been lost in the Gulf, so for those in the Niger delta, the sight of the U.S. president making daily speeches about the BP disaster is more than a little surreal.”

The Niger Delta suffers the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-size spill every year. And as oil grows scarcer, mind-bogglingly wasteful and destructive projects, such as Canada’s tar sands mines, are supplying an increasing amount of the world’s oil supply. Do we any more proof that the time to kick the oil addiction is now?

Photo credit: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

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