More Gulf Oil Debacles Ahead, So Stop Wasting Energy: Interview

The cover jacket of "In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and Ending Out Oil Addiction" by Peter Lehner. Source: Natural Resources Defense Council via Bloomber

BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 men, and, over the next three months, 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s enough to fuel the country for six hours.

Peter Lehner’s “In Deep Water” is the first book about what went wrong during the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history.

Executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been fighting to safeguard the earth and its biosphere for four decades, Lehner says the likelihood of another accident in the Gulf is 100 percent, and that now’s the time to wise up and stop squandering oil.

We spoke in his office at the NRDC in New York.

Lundborg: After the fatal explosion, what was lowest point of the spill for you?

Lehner: Realizing the difference in scale. The spill itself was 40 miles out to sea, and we were in a plane looking down at it. We’re seeing a lot of oil and the pilot tells us we’re still 100 miles from the spill site.

At the end, the slick covered 600 miles of shoreline and had an area the size of Oklahoma or bigger.

Hoses, Diapers

Lundborg: And at the other end of the scale?

Lehner: Later on that day, I was down in a little boat watching these guys try to clean the spill up with hoses four inches across and diapers. It was a complete mismatch.

There’s the same difference in scale between the enormity of BP and the powerlessness of the shrimpers and fishermen who are out of a job.

Lundborg: What’s the long-term impact?

Lehner: No one knows.

Lundborg: You say that though there will be more spills in the future, they can be minimized.

Lehner: We can try to spread the spills out, make them smaller, more controllable.

On the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP made a lot of choices and almost in every instance it reduced the cost, cut the time and increased the risk.

Lundborg: Wasn’t the government, specifically, the Minerals Management Service, supposed to be watching out for us?

Defanged Watchdogs

Lehner: That will certainly be remembered as one of the highlights of agency failure.

But really it was the result of a multi-decades process to denigrate expert agencies, to take away their authority to protect us, to defang the watchdogs.

Lundborg: Why don’t people care more that the energy companies are setting the agenda for this country?

Lehner: In the last year, dirty energy companies and their allies spent $500 million dollars trying to defeat clean energy legislation.

If you spend that much making people afraid, misleading them as to the truth and hiding what’s going on, you can convince the American public other things are more important.

Lundborg: We’re really falling behind in terms of developing clean tech?

Lehner: I’m sad for my children. We have a political debate going on that’s idiotic about whether or not climate change really exists, and meanwhile the rest of the world is running by us and laughing at us.

Lundborg: Is the next battleground the Arctic?

Dark, Dangerous

Lehner: Drilling in the Gulf has many challenges, but it’s calm, warm water and the days are long.

Imagine if there were a spill like this on the north coast of Alaska where bad weather is minus-40 degrees, there are 20-foot waves, freezing water and icebergs. Plus it’s pitch dark for half the year.

We just shouldn’t be drilling where the risks are way too high.

Lundborg: There’s a lot of pressure from the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd?

Lehner: We’re in litigation now with Shell Oil and others who are still trying to drill in the Arctic.

We’re still trying to keep the Arctic protected.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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