Oil in Aspen

The Aspen Institute and the National Geographic Society kicked off the 2010 Aspen Environment Forum Sunday night with a lively discussion of the Gulf disaster. The timing of the forum, which always focuses on climate and renewable energy issues, has definitely cast an air of pessimism here. After all, the announcement from the U.S. Senate and the Obama administration that a climate bill will have to wait for another year at a minimum was extremely disappointing news for the environment and the green energy sector. The tragic loss of Stanford climate change icon Steven Schneider also put a damper on the evening. National Geogrpahic editor in chief Chris Johns correctly credited Schneider as the most persuasive and credible climate change scientist in the country.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, actor and New Orleans activist Wendell Pierce, journalist Joel Bourne, and Shell Oil exec vp deep water drilling John Hollowell comprised the Gulf panel. Tulane president Scott Cowen moderated deftly.

Jackson offered her unique observations from the Gulf and Washington, D.C. As a native New Orleanian, she emphasized the resiliency of her fellow Gulf residents and their incredible optimism in the face of yet another national disaster. She spoke about EPA’s efforts to monitor air, water and sediment and to work with the community on oil spill impact issues and responses. She also took pride in the Administration’s efforts to get $20 billion from BP and she was pretty candid about  her disappointment in BP’s handling and frequent mischaracterization of the crisis.

When she was asked about any regrets about the federal spill response, her answer illustrated the biggest problem. Prevention is the only way to stop an oil spill disaster. The regulatory agencies had become complacent in their complete trust in corporate responsibility to prevent oil spills. Existing regulations aren’t perfect and need to be toughened up, but the real issue is that the feds simply weren’t tough enough in the compliance assurance area.

Jackson made it clear that the conflict between one agency permitting oil drilling as well as regulating environmental compliance must be eliminated. These sorts of conflicts plague the federal regulatory system, such as the Minerals Management Service (even after reorganization) and the Army Corps of Engineers (they permit themselves on dredge and fill and other projects).

Jackson emphasized that our preparedness for a spill has tremendous room for improvement. We’ve all heard about BP’s inadequate spill response plan and the feds’ poor job in ensuring that the plans are up to date with prepared emergency response workers and adequate equipment. But Jackson added that EPA and others needed to be prepared with toxicity and other tests on oil dispersants under various environmental conditions. 

I did get in one question. I asked the Administrator why no environmental emergency had been declared in the Gulf. After all, emergency declarations occur all the time (for projects as small as dredging out boating channels in Marina del Rey and the L.A. River estuary) . And they enable federal agencies to streamline or even bypass required formal environmental reviews, to gain access to other resources, and perhaps most important, enable greater flexibility in spill response and habitat protection and restoration efforts.

Jackson said the issue is still being discussed (nearly three months after the blowout started), and that the Obama administration continues to mull the idea. From my perspective, although certain opportunities for rapid response and remediation have been lost, an emergency declaration for the Gulf would still provide environmental benefits.

The other three panelists didn’t break much new ground. But Hollowell noted that Shell never would have a deepwater blow out like BP because of their strong global drilling, robust well designs with multiple barriers to blowouts, extensive training and third-party monitoring efforts, and extensive risk management and mitigation efforts. In other words, he gave a pretty slick answer to some tough questions.

He emphasized the oil industry’s $1 billion-plus effort to create rapid response technology in the event of another disaster. When asked about Shell’s efforts to transition to renewables and low carbon fuels, he emphasized the corporation’s investments in Brazilian biofuels (not exactly eco-friendly) and wind. Shell hopes to get to 30% renewables by 2050, an extremely deep time horizon for the ongoing climate crisis. 

Pierce also emphasized the resilience of Gulf residents and he spoke enthusiastically about how the group he founded, the Ponchartrain Community Development Corp., has been instrumental in building highly energy efficient, green housing in response to Katrina.

Bourne, a journalist that has written about oil spills all over the world, emphasized that the rate of major spills and blowouts hasn’t changed much over the last four decades.  He spoke about society’s short memory on the long-term economic and ecological impacts of major spills. Bourne pointed out that impacts to the coral reef still exist near 1979’s Ixtoc blowout in the Bay of Campeche. Local fisherman have said that fisheries can take anywhere from seven to 15 years or more to recover to an economically viable state.

Bourne noted that America has subsidized deepwater drilling since 1995 with the Deepwater Royalty Relief Act. The measure assured that royalties didn’t have to be shared during the first few years of production. His biggest fear is the addition of so much carbon in oxygen-limited waters. What will happen to the dead zone in the Gulf?  How big will the anoxic zones get and what will the impacts be to marine life?

Not surprisingly, Bourne’s recommendation to stop oil spills is to transition away from using oil. Unfortunately, the sense of urgency to move to a green economy just isn’t there. If the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history doesn’t catalyze change, what will?

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