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Oozing Images: Thoughts on the Oil Spill

06/03/2010

-by Derek Gideon

Reading Period and Exam Week together make up the time of year when Princeton’s infamous “Orange Bubble” is at its thickest. In spite of that, one ongoing news story was corrosive enough to eat through the bubble. Many friends sent me news items about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including this op-ed by Princeton’s Paul Krugman about the political impacts of the spill, and this New York Times interactive map showing a time line of the spill’s progress. When I arrived home this weekend for the beginning of summer, my dad showed me the Boston Globe’s terrific, though disturbing, photo feature on the spill, which shows vivid images of wildlife caked in oil, smoke burning off the water, and a ship cutting through an oil sick that fans across the surrounding sea.

The image that will stick with me the most, though, is the widely circled video of plumes of oil rising out of the ocean floor:

Last Tuesday, BP announced it may have begun to control the leak using a “top kill” method and was moving closer towards stopping it altogether. On Saturday, they announced that top kill had failed. The plumes of oil keep rising. The estimates of how much oil has been spilled so far range from 25.8 million to 102.6 million gallons, far surpassing the 10.8 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska.

Most of us watching this in horror have no immediate connection to the Gulf of Mexico. I have never been to New Orleans, or anywhere on the Louisiana coast. Our experience comes through news reports, images, videos. Just as the black clouds of oil ooze across the ocean, the news reports, images, charts, and videos last week  and also ooze across our entire public consciousness. They not only burst through the Orange Bubble, but burn a permanent hole in BP’s well-crafted image as a “green” oil company.

The idea that an oil company can ever be green may seem absurd, but BP spent $200 million trying to appear to be a “green” oil company, renaming itself from the original “British Petroleum,” implying in advertising that BP stands for “Beyond Petroleum,” changing its logo from a shield to a hippie sunflower, and running commercials touting its investment in alternative energy. The company was and still is a major sponsor of Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, which aims to “to lead the way to a compelling and sustainable solution of the carbon and climate change problem,” according to its web page.

All that time, as Time Magazine reported, the company had a terrible safety record, spilling 200,000 gallons of oil off Alaska and receiving government fines after a refinery explosion in Texas killed 15 people.  Greenpeace UK even awarded the company its “Emerald Paintbrush Award” for green false advertising.

It isn’t just accidents that put a hole in BP’s green image. One of BP’s favorite “alternative” energies is oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, in which the company has invested heavily. Oil extracted from the tar sands not only has higher carbon emissions than conventional oil, but also is destroying local ecosystems. Though the Alberta government has not yet conducted a health study of local residents, Clayton Thomas-Mueller of the Indigenous Environmental Network told Yes! Magazine last December:

“The five First Nations in the region of the tar sands rely on traditional food sources, like moose, fish, beaver, and muskrat, all of which have become contaminated by mining pollution. We’re talking about a community of just 1,200 that’s seen more than 100 deaths in the last decade from rare cancers and autoimmune diseases. The tar sands leases also violate aboriginal treaty rights; they were sold by the provincial government without the prior informed consent of local communities.”

The oil spill was an accident. The tar sands are what BP looks like when things go well.

Left: BP when things go wrong. Right: BP when everything goes according to plan. (Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t have much to contribute when it comes to the politics of the spill.  The 1Sky Campaign and Green for All both have petitions on their websites calling for both an end to offshore drilling and a clean energy bill. The environmental web magazine grist.org has a list of eight things you can do to help, and the Huffington Post has an even longer list of ways to get involved.

So my own contribution from this blog will be just this: we need to keep the images flowing. Share them here in the comments section, on Facebook, on Twitter- wherever you can.  Pour some dispersant on BP.

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