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A Nation of Oil Spills

I don’t know if anyone has noticed that the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only a unique action in terms of degree. Indeed, around the world and even here in this country, the tremendous production, transportation and consumption of oil and gas for energy leads to accidents with that oil on a routine basis. It happens all the time, in communities across America, yet because it doesn’t gush at the same rate as the blowout in the Gulf, it garners little attention outside of local news. For instance, I came home this Wednesday to a story about a closure on the 134 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley:

BURBANK, Calif. (KABC) — All lanes have been reopened on the eastbound 134 Freeway after a gasoline tanker overturned Thursday morning […]

One out of three compartments on the overturned tanker was leaking, according of officials. Each compartment holds 1,500 gallons of gasoline.

CHP spokesman Officer Ricardo Quintero says the tanker crashed in the two right lanes around 10:15 a.m. No other vehicles were involved.

Fuel spilled into a storm drain which funnels to Johnny Carson Park in Burbank on Riverside Drive.

Maybe you live in Wisconsin and heard about the diesel tank leak in Chippewa County:

A leak at the Chippewa County Courthouse sends diesel fuel into a nearby creek Friday morning, sparking a quick clean-up effort.

A hydrogeologist with the DNR says he heard anywhere from 50 to 279 gallons may have leaked. But, he says only a small amount actually ended up running through the storm drains and into Duncan Creek.

Fire crews used a boom mainly as a precaution in the creek. The DNR says it won’t do much to stop the oily sheen from spreading, but it would catch oil globs had more of it made its way into the storm sewers.

Only a small amount! I’m sure that was similarly true of the leak in Salt Lake City:

A leaked pipeline sent oil spilling into a Salt Lake City creek, coating geese and ducks and closing a park, officials said Saturday as they started a cleanup effort expected to last weeks.

At least 400 to 500 barrels of oil spewed into Red Butte Creek before crews capped the leak site. Nearly 50 gallons of crude oil per minute initially had spilled into the creek, according to Scott Freitag, a Salt Lake City Fire Department spokesman.

”Our real concern is keeping people safe, and keeping the oil from reaching the Great Salt Lake,” he told the Deseret News.

Or the tanker collision in Texas:

A crude oil tanker collided with a service vessel in the Gulf of Mexico near Texas, spilling 18,000 gallons (68,140 liters) of the tanker’s fuel but none of its cargo, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Wednesday.

The accident occurred in rough seas late Tuesday after the tanker finished receiving crude oil from a supertanker too large to enter port 46 miles southeast of Galveston. Ship-to-ship oil transfers, called lightering, are common and often involve a third vessel servicing the operation.

You can add the Marcellus Shale explosions in Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia. All of this happened IN THE LAST WEEK, and it’s in no way unusual. Tankers crash, trucks jackknife, explosions occur, pipes break. We are a nation of oil spills.

Consider that scientific samples of the underwater plumes in the Gulf suggest there’s another rig leaking oil that nobody knows about:

During a June 8 briefing for reporters, Steven Murawski, chief science advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Fisheries Service, described deep strata of water tainted with oil. They were identified during a recent cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. A presumption had been that any clouds of oil hovering under the surface would be plumes spewed by the damaged BP well head. But the chemical fingerprinting of diffuse undersea oil clouds at one sampling site 142 nautical miles southeast of the Deepwater Horizon accident site was “not consistent with BP oil,” he pointed out.

Which begs the question: Where did this other oil come from — since Murawski noted that earlier research surveys of the area prior to the BP spill had turned up no subsea oil clouds.

At present there is no answer. But it should be noted that some recent news organizations around the gulf coast have lately begun reporting on a second leaking offshore gulf oil rig: the Ocean Saratoga.

Oil has reportedly been leaking from the Ocean Saratoga since April 30 without much attention beyond a few stories.

The BP spill obviously is several orders of magnitude greater than anything we’ve experienced in this country, and the possibility of damage beneath the sea floor could turn it into an unfixable disaster. But in reality, BP just turned the spigot higher. That spigot is always on in America, as the business of cultivating and distributing pollutants across the nation for the purposes of heating and transportation invites disaster every single day of the year. When you look at it that way, the problem cannot be merely increased security in deepwater drilling, or better regulatory oversight. The problem can only be defined as the historically catastrophic nature of fossil fuel production itself.

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David Dayen

David Dayen