Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Peter Maass, author of “Crude World – The Violent Twilight of Oil,” about the impact of oil spills around the globe.
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MARCO WERMAN: Another 200,000 gallons of oil has spilled out of that ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico in the past 24 hours. That’s on top of the roughly 2.6 million gallons that have polluted the Gulf since the well blew out two weeks ago and the oil could keep gushing for months. The only comparable oil spill to hit this country in recent memory was the one caused by the Exxon Valdez, off the coast of Alaska in 1989. But the fact is oil spills are a common occurrence around the world. Peter Maass is the author of “Crude World – The Violent Twilight of Oil”. He is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Peter, how often do oil spills like this take place in other parts of the world?
PETER MAASS: Basically, every day. I went to Nigeria and in Nigeria, according to official statistics, between 1976 and 2001 there were five oil spills a day and those are the official statistics, the actual numbers are thought to be much higher. And the thing is that they are not dramatic spills in the sense of an oil rig blowing up as happened in the Gulf of Mexico. What happens is literally drip, drip, drip. And I saw this. I went into the Niger Delta, which is a source of a lot of oil for the United States, and what you see when you go through this delta is oil platforms which are literally dripping oil right into the water itself. And there is just a screen of oil on the water itself. It’s the kind of screen of oil that people in Louisiana are beginning to see on their shorelines, but this is something that people in Nigeria see every day. And it goes on not just in places like Nigeria. It also goes on in a place like Ecuador where Elsa went and where oil wastewater has been pumped into the Amazon there in just tremendous amounts.
WERMAN: So let’s take the example of Nigeria. Cumulatively over 30 years what does this do to the daily lives of people who live on the shore and have to deal with this drip, drip, drip?
MAASS: Well it really destroys what had been their patterns of life. There were these ecosystems that were based around fishing that have been destroyed because of oil. And as well as, also, tremendous corrupting influence that oil has had on the human political systems in these countries. But environmentally, they can’t drink the water, they can’t fish from the waters and they just basically have to depend on hand outs or whatever they can steal from the pipelines themselves, which of course causes even more environmental problems.
WERMAN: What kind of regulatory measures are in place to deal with spills that take place in less developed countries such as Nigeria and Ecuador?
MAASS: Well this is the key problem, really. Because in these countries there are of course environmental laws, but the question is, are they enforced? And the answer is no, they are not enforced because the governments are too weak, because the governments themselves are not interested in enforcing the laws. Because in a place like Nigeria, for example, enforcing the laws would mean basically shutting down production because there’s just so much pollution going on. But the governments want the production to continue because they depend on the oil revenues for lining their own pockets, or whatever. So you have laws and they are not enforced. And of course the companies are delighted to go along with it because it means that they don’t have to invest as much in safety, they don’t have to invest as much in clean ups.
WERMAN: Now you mentioned the almost daily spills in Nigeria and Ecuador, but there have been some really huge oil spill events in the last few decades; 420 million gallons or so in the Persian Gulf when Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait in ’91; 90 million gallons in Trinidad and Tobago in ’79 when two oil carriers collided. Those are just two. Where does all the spilled oil go and what does it do to the planet?
MAASS: It goes into the ground. In Ecuador, for example, there was a farmer I visited and basically went out behind his house and just pulled up a shovel full of dirt next to the stream and there was like a seam of oil there because 20 years previous an oil tanker truck had jackknifed and the oil had spilled out into the little stream and it had never been cleaned up, it’s still there. So it stays there, it doesn’t go away. But the key thing is, in a way, it may not go away for the people who are in Ecuador, or the people who are in Nigeria, the people who are in Iraq, but it does go away for us. We don’t suffer it and that’s kind of the key problem of all this. It’s only once every 30 years in America perhaps where we really pay attention to the problems of oil extraction and just how deadly, environmentally, oil spills are. But when the problem goes away for us, it’s out of our mind and so we’ve kind of managed to outsource, not only the extraction, but particularly the environmental cost of oil.
WERMAN: So is drilling less off shore the solution to this problem?
MAASS: Drilling offshore less is the solution if it’s a global solution. Drilling offshore less in American waters is not the solution. It may be part of the problem because again, it insulates us from the real problems of extraction. If we can drill less everywhere, and that means reducing our consumption of oil, then we will have approached the nub of the problem and have begun to resolve it.
WERMAN: We’re talking about all the problems associated with oil, especially off shore oil here, and at the same time we heard last week about the approval of the first off shore wind project in the U.S. I imagine there are some dots to be connected here.
MAASS: I would hope so. The fact that we have this kind of oil lapping up from the earth and into the waters in the Gulf of Mexico and at the same time we have kind of the ability to build wind farms that do not depend on oil and would provide us with renewable non-polluting sources of energy. The connection seems apparent to me and I hope that if anything good comes out of this terrible, terrible oil spill, is that people realize that there are these costs that we have to reckon with and there are solutions to these costs and we just have to be incredibly serious about them and not just have authorization for one wind far off shore, but for a heck of a lot more and a heck of a lot more in the way of conservation and efficiency because actually there’s a tremendous amount of things that we can be doing, it’s just a question of recognizing the need to do it.
WERMAN: Peter Maass, author of “Crude World – The Violent Twilight of Oil” and a Fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Thanks very much.
MAASS: Thank you.
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