Friday, March 25, 2011

Exclusive Interview with Carl Safina, Author of A Sea in Flames

Book Passage buyer Sheryl Cotleur interviewed author Carl Safina about his new book A Sea in Flames ($25.00). A Sea in Flames will be released on April 19, but you may pre-order a copy at this link.

Carl Safina
A Sea in Flames ($25.00)
Sheryl Cotleur: While BP and our government seems to have been excruciatingly slow in responding to the Deepwater Horizon blowout and admitting to its scale, were there any other groups or individuals, to your knowledge, hammering on the door to elicit a greater response and call for wider help? Maybe that's too broad—any other groups or individuals with clout?

Carl Safina: There were a lot of groups hammering. Wildlife groups, enviro groups, some universities, local activists—But there was no preparedness, blurry authority, widespread confusion, and BP’s attempts to obscure the magnitude of the leak. There were few—really none—responsive pressure points to push. It was just a mess. This created a situation where the worst toll on the whole Gulf was largely the psychological suffering thousands of people endured, wondering what was going on, what the future held, and whether their lives and livings were, basically, finished.

SC: One of the most stunning aspects that became clear during this event is the way Big Business in the form of BP seemed to have ultimate authority (political authority) over our government in terms of controlling public access to information, roads, beaches and the clean-up. Please elaborate on what you experienced and what this means for us as citizens. Along the same lines then, why do you think it was assumed they'd be the authority on environmental clean-up, as well as calling for the use of dispersants on such a large scale? Was anyone inviting scientists into the discussion, or listening to them?

CS: I don’t think anyone was listening. As for how BP managed to be an occupying force all along the Gulf Coast, two things: One, the law on oil spill response is based on the Exxon Valdez tanker accident. The law makes the spiller responsible for cleanup. This was not a spill. It was a deepwater blowout that lasted months. The law did not envision this (though they certainly should have—the Gulf had a 9-month blowout in Mexican waters 30 years ago and smaller blowouts are fairly common). BP therefore, by law, was given the task of running the cleanup. And they way overreached. That, combined with local law seizing the opportunity to “do something” created a bizarre situation that was just shameful. You had private guards kicking people off public beaches, roads closed, people with cameras harassed—just shameful. The law should make the responsible company pay for all the contractors, but not run the cleanup. It got totally out of hand as far as giving them and the local bullies free range in trying to prevent public access and avert public scrutiny.

SC: Is there a government agency in charge of environmental cleanup after an accident, and is it different on land versus at sea?

CS: Not sure. I think in either case the company at fault must do the clean-up. This obviously needs to be constrained. The company should be made to write checks, and a federal emergency agency like FEMA (if managed right) should coordinate the contractors. The government should retain full authority and allow full public access except where it would be dangerous. For instance, too many planes were circling over the site of the blowout, so that got dangerous. But to have private companies hire private guards to bully the public and harass media people; in the U.S., that is totally unacceptable. But that’s what happened. Remember though, back to your question of “cleanup,” that in the case of a blowout there was, and remains, zero preparedness for quickly stopping a leaking pipe in deep water. That’s why they tried all that inane stuff: top kill, junk shot, dome; they were just making it up. The analogy was responding to a burning house by building a fire truck.

SC: While the tragedy of eleven lives lost will forever mark this event, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, do you think any positives might come from any other aspects of the blowout?

CS: The most positive thing would have been an energized push for the inevitable ramping up and phase in of clean energy technologies. That moment was lost because the politics of this country has become a dysfunctional team sporting event where each “side” tries to “win” by making the other lose. Actually America is the loser. China is seizing the moment because they understand that the country that invents the energy future will own the future and sell it to the rest of us. As we bicker, they build. It’s a catastrophe for U.S. leadership in the world and for our economy and American jobs, because a lot of the energy infrastructure would have to be built and we have people capable of doing that. There is some positive, in increased attention to what is really causing the collapse of the Mississippi marshes. Over 40 years, people have cut 10,000 miles of canals and channels into the Mississippi Delta. Those channels, and flood control upstream, also starve the marshes of the silt that builds and maintains them. The marshes are just crumbling, converting to open water at a rate of 25 square miles a year. That’s what’s really killing those wetlands. Not the oil. And by the way, the real problem with oil is not the oil we spill. The real problem is the oil we burn. The spilled oil gets more and more diluted. But the carbon dioxide from the oil and coal we burn gets more and more concentrated. There’s 30 percent more of it in the air now than there was at the start of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. It’s changing the heat balance of the planet and acidifying the seas. The blowout was a terrible event caused by sheer reckless stupidity. Lives were lost and the region was in turmoil for months. But it’s not the long-term problem.

SC: You mention BP having established a fund to study the aftereffects of the blowout for at least 10 years. Do you know who is being funded and to whom they report their findings eventually?

CS: Academic institutions. I don’t know the details of which, or what they are looking at specifically. Last I heard, this was to be no-strings-attached, meaning BP would not own or control the data or scientific publications. That’s imperative. In the aftermath, BP has been a better citizen than Exxon was. Exxon had abandoned the people in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and turned into a monstrous adversary. That’s what people feared in the Gulf. But almost all the details were different right from the start, and it played out very differently. But there’s still plenty of reason not to trust BP’s motives and to scrutinize their statements and their actions. They’re still trying to minimize the estimates of how much oil got into the Gulf, not because they care about accuracy but only because they get fined by the gallon.

SC: Thank you for your time and especially thank you for your work. One of the most powerful points you make in A Sea in Flames is the psychological devastation to the communities affected by these kinds of events and the need to grieve. This is not something one often finds pointed out, at least so effectively as you have. I only hope this kind of attention and care continues to educate the rest of us, makes us think, and spurs us to effective action.

CS: The pleasure is mine.


Yale has just brought out a timely publication, Atlas of Oceans: An Ecological Survey of Underwater Life ($50.00), with a forward by Carl Safina. This is an invaluable addition to our understanding of how oceans work. It has excellent illustrations and even some reference to the Deepwater Horizon Blowout, though it is far more comprehensive that just that event.

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