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The massive and ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by a drilling rig explosion and eventual collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform leased by British Petroleum is already considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and possibly the entire world’s. The consequences of this continued oil spill flow from the ocean’s depth is incalculable…we are truly in uncharted territory!

Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society, along with his late father, the legendary Captain Jacques Cousteau, have made enormous contributions to our knowledge and understanding of our planet’s oceans and diverse bodies of water. A few days ago, accompanied by a group of dedicated scientists from his organization, Jean-Michel traveled to the accident site in the Gulf of Mexico. They are voluntarily there to assess the situation and to help collaborate in finding solutions.

Jean-Michel said this “I have been on site at the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Prestige oil spill in Spain, but they don’t compare with the magnitude of this Gulf spill. We will look for immediate solutions but may mostly find reasons why this must never happen again and what must be done for the future.”

We are faced with a terrible question after observing the desperate and so far failed attempts to control or cap the oil gusher.

What is the environmental impact and extent of damage to the marine ecosystems and the coastal zones, so rich in bio-diversity of both plant and animal? The Gulf of Mexico is home to one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef, unique in the Western Hemisphere and second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. An ancient natural system dating back 225 million years, the reefs function as a natural barrier to storms and hurricanes and are critical to the survival of plant and animal species. It is an important defense against coastal erosion as well. The fragility of these ecosystems is well known and is particularly susceptible to contamination threats. More than 400 species live in the islands and marshlands at risk of oil toxicity AND oxygen depletion occasioned by the oil dispersants used to break up the oil threaten fish and plankton with serious domino effects all the way up the food chain. In the states of Louisiana and Florida, hundreds of thousands of birds and other animals are already dying and in grave danger.

When the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound twenty-one years ago, it spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil that contaminated all in its path – the water, the beaches, the rocks, the birds, the marine animals and plants – eventually covering 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean with the black sludge. The limitations of our human resources to combat the disaster were underscored by visuals of a clean-up effort undertaken by 12,000 people using shovels and paper towels. After twenty-one years, the negative impact of the spill continues to be felt in this formerly pristine area with a myriad of adverse effects that has decreased the “wilderness character” of the area. To put the new disaster into perspective, it is estimated that the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spillage now spews into the Gulf of Mexico every FOUR days. We seem to be no better prepared for such a disaster 21 years later.

Some in the political and media communities cynically argue that this is a natural “phenomenon”, that some oil natively exists in the water and that the ocean will cleanse itself of this oil…naturally. Nothing could be further from the truth! Crude oil is the result of a heterogeneous mix of fossilized organic compounds, predominantly hydrocarbons deposited into the earth’s sedimentary strata millions of years ago. The hydrocarbons are insoluble in water and thus do not mix with the ocean’s water. The dark brown waves of sludge wash up on the beaches, marshes and wetlands intact and undiluted by the water destroying all animal and plant life in its wake.

This oil spill, vastly larger, worse and more intense than any supertanker event, is located at a profound depth in the ocean – spewing massive amounts of oil from more than 1 and 1/2 miles deep. The origin of this environmental disaster creates a hidden menace beneath the water’s surface. A team of University of Georgia scientists has confirmed clouds, or oil plumes, containing small particulate oil matter in the depths of the ocean, a number of which are several hundred feet thick and extend for several miles. This bespeaks to the real ecological catastrophe in the Gulf. Sharks and turtles are already swimming through this toxic soup and dying. There is no way to predict what will happen if the crude oil flow cannot be sufficiently mitigated in the coming months, or worse, if it continues to spill until the well is exhausted. In any event, no argument can be made but that the negative and adverse effects are inestimable and catastrophic.

Let us also not lose sight of another fundamental axiom…Environmental contamination knows no borders. It needs no passport to travel to the far reaches of our treasured planet. Underwater currents and anticipated seasonal cyclonic activity will no doubt carry millions of gallons to already precarious habitats in the Arctic and the Antarctic. So let us not feel secure or, worse, detached from this disaster simply because we are not in its direct causal path.

What lessons are there to be learned from past oil spills that have been repeated without cessation for the last twenty years?  This tragedy mandates that we continue to develop technologies that are designed with better margins of safety and triple failsafe backups as a priority. We should honestly and transparently execute the periodic evaluative reviews required of both equipment and personnel in adherence with our current regulatory law. By all preliminary accounts, British Petroleum, in their rush to create a revenue generating well, did not follow the correct, established procedures on this oil rig and dismissed repeated warnings by people at the well site. We need to develop a mindset, both as a society and especially in the business culture that plans for prevention.

As the old saying goes: Why is there never enough time to prevent a mistake but always enough time to fix one? The truly sad statement about the way we deal with these “mistakes” up until now is that we not only don’t take the correct, preventive steps, but faced with the specter of a disaster, we neither allot the correct amount of time or resources to correct it…the Exxon Valdez and Katrina standing out as stark reminders of this modus operandi. To be constantly surprised and left impotent by these man-made catastrophes speak to an arrogance that overrules common sense. If the result of failed preventive measures in this arena is too dire to contemplate, then perhaps deep sea drilling is not an option.

Jean Michel Cousteau concurs. He has stated: “The sad side of the human species is that we talk a lot and take very little action until we have a catastrophe on our hands.”

We cannot change what has occurred, but we must learn the lessons from this calamity. As a society, we need to refocus and change the way we act toward our environment; how we rapaciously exploit our natural resources (both flora and fauna) thinking that technology will solve all the ills created by that voracious appetite. We must adopt a new philosophy: one that has a more balanced approach to the use of the earth’s resources and to our relationship with nature…of which we are only a small part. We need to accept that nature is a lot more complex than we believe it to be and that technology is a lot more limited than we want it to be.