Anniversary of BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill Disaster, Oil Industry Crashes, and Turtles

April 20th, 2020
Share the Beach turtle watch volunteers — helped by visiting Oregonian Cylvia Hayes (l) — carry two of the three boxes containing the 120 eggs of a leatherback sea turtle which were just dug up on Gulf Shores AL beach. They will be moved to an incubation center at Kennedy Space Center for hatching, rather than have them go into the oil polluted Gulf. More than 10,700 hatchlings have been released into the Atlantic as of Aug 19

So this is the week of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and it is historic in many ways. I’ll be posting about various aspects all week, but today the focus is on the historic eighth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast, the biggest single event environmental disaster in U.S. history. The ecosystem and the region still have not recovered.

Today, also, for the first time in history, oil futures went negative, meaning traders who buy and sell oil were paying others to take the stuff off their hands. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame this on COVID-19 and the resulting reduction in driving, air travel, etc. as most of us are adhering to the stay at home recommendations. But this problem was set up long before C-19. Due to fracking, massive subsidization of the oil industry and geopolitics there was a world glut of oil long before the pandemic. In fact, well before the onset of the pandemic, the oil industry in the U.S. was running into challenges finding storage space. And yet, as the pandemic spread, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and Brazil continued to drill and pump.

And now, the oil industry and those who invest in it are panicked and clamoring for governmental bail-outs. Many of these folks are likely those who worship at the altar of neoclassical economics which espouses the absolute wisdom of the free market. Well, if free market is what they want, here they go. The market is flooded, demand is down and prices are below zero. Suck it up snowflakes, suffer your losses, rest on your wealth rather than government bailouts and stop drilling. The real economic losers here will be the thousands of on-the-ground oil industry workers who will now be laid off due to mismanagement by their industry decision-makers.

Back in 2010, I traveled to the Gulf Coast to witness and report on the devastating oil spill and, as possible, to help out where I could. I held a woman who collapsed in my arms outside a food bank. I spoke with fishermen who were unsure when or if they would ever be able to restart their businesses and din’t know how they were going to feed their families. I listened as a smiling clean up consultant for BP spun a tale about how the beaches would be much better than before the spill due to all the chemical and mechanical sand washing.

I also worked to help with environmental protection. One of the most profound experiences was relocating a nest of sea turtle eggs from an oil-covered beach.

Forty-two nights earlier, a three foot wide loggerhead turtle had dragged herself up onto the sand, labored to dig a flat, deep, round hole and deposited into it 122 ping-pong ball sized eggs. She then covered the nest and returned to the oiled water.

Over time the eggs had hardened and due to the oil spill they had to be moved from the perfectly prepared nest. Kneeling beside the nest, wearing surgical gloves to protect himself from oil and dispersants, the lead wildlife rehab worker began using his large hands, like turtle flippers, to excavate the nest. After ten minutes of gentle digging and clearing, the first eggs were unearthed, bright white orbs against the dark sand.  Over the next hour and a half each egg was carefully lifted and placed into one of three small Styrofoam coolers.

One of the big unknowns in the unprecedented egg relocation effort was how it would effect the homing instinct. At about 15 years of age, the female sea turtles reach sexual maturity, mate and head toward the very beach upon which they had been hatched years before. The exact method of their extraordinary homing beacon is not thoroughly understood. There was no way to know if the hatchlings that survived the relocation project would know how to return to the Gulf Shores region. As the volunteers placed them into the nest boxes the locals softly chanted, “Gulf Shores. Gulf Shores. Come back little ones.” They had tears in their eyes, so did I.

Filled with eggs, the boxes were strapped to frames by shock-absorbing rubber bungee cords. Two people carried each box toward an awaiting vehicle. Tourists walked along with us watching the process. A powerful sense of responsibility and awe washed over me. I held in my hands 42 members of a species that was disappearing from the Earth. I walked very carefully and held very tightly to my precious cargo.

To this day I have no idea if any of those turtles survived or made it back to their birth beach.

Meanwhile, this past week on a beach in Brazil, normally flooded with tourists, nearly 100 critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles hatched and moved to the sea unimpeded.

Happy Earth Week. Now is the time.





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