The Gulf oil spill is a tragedy. It is a stark reminder that our planet's ocean and shorelines are extremely vulnerable. And it underscores the challenges inherent in the drive to extract fish, oil, gas, minerals and other commodities from the ocean for human use.
While there are necessary reasons for these activities – fisheries are the primary source of protein for more than 1 billion people worldwide, and energy alternatives are not yet ready at the global scale – too often, poor industrial practices and inadequate regulations allow devastating damage to our naturally abundant seas.
We have ignored for too long that it is our individual and collective addiction to cheap gas and oil that permits our elected officials to water down effective governance over the oil and gas industries.
Our love affair with cars and cheap gas is responsible. There are about 200 million of us driving more than 250 million passenger vehicles, including some 110 million oil-hungry trucks. About a quarter of the oil produced in the U.S. comes from deepwater Gulf wells.
We must come to terms with our fossil fuel dependency and change our energy sources for good. The United States must demonstrate leadership to the rest of the world by passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation. We need it to happen, and we need our elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, to demonstrate the leadership they promised us, put politics aside and make it happen now.
Our government allowed exploration at depths that were too deep, where we did not have the technical and engineering capacity to stop blow outs. The under-resourced, under-funded Minerals Management Service, which was supposed to be the oversight agency, allowed BP to police itself. Our government passed laws that limited the liability of oil and gas companies to a meager $75 million, not nearly enough to encourage careful risk assessment of exploration and extraction.
We, the people, did not insist that the livelihoods of tourism, shrimping and fishing were valuable enough to safeguard – not just in Louisiana, but also in Mississippi, Texas, Florida and along the East Coast, and into Mexico and the Caribbean.
We did not appreciate that the culture of the southern coast – an American treasure – is shaped by a healthy Gulf Coast, not a dead one.
Of course, BP is the operator and rightfully must be held responsible. By all counts there were serious flaws in their operations and they did not have effective backup plans in place. They must demonstrate their commitment to the region by not only stopping the current flow of oil but supporting the cleanup efforts in their entirety even if it takes decades.
And we, the environmental community, we are culpable too. We were not aggressively engaged or at the table with our science and our experience to help guide safe deep-water decision-making with businesses or the government.
We allowed this to happen, and we must learn from this experience.
Can you imagine if this occurred in Indonesia or West Africa? We wouldn't even know about it – maybe a short column on the back page of the local newspaper. The fact is that this is a global problem. The opportunity for replication of this disaster lies in every corner of the world.
CI and the Ocean
While Conservation international (CI) does not work directly in the Gulf region, we are monitoring the situation constantly and providing input and guidance to many of our partners who have the knowledge and practical expertise to contribute to the recovery efforts.
Catastrophic events such as the Deepwater Horizon spill rightly attract public and decision-maker attention to the issue of ocean degradation. It must be remembered, however, that the world's oceans are under continuous assault from less dramatic but chronic and equally devastating long-term threats. Unsustainable fishing, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, climate change and ocean acidification are degrading ocean health worldwide and putting at risk the many benefits the ocean provides to people. As a result, current and future livelihoods are being lost.
CI believes that in addition to adequately and swiftly responding to environmental disasters, such as the oil spill, as a society we need to put in place solutions that halt the ongoing damage to our oceans, improve ocean health and ensure people can continue to benefit from the abundant and essential goods and services the ocean provides. To that end, CI's Marine Program Master Plan concentrates on a set of global solutions, including the creation of a global ocean health index that will track the ocean's condition, a move toward sustainable fisheries, and an expansion of collaboratively managed large marine areas, such as seascapes and oceanscapes, to help us restore a prosperous ocean. The Gulf oil spill has demonstrated the urgent need to accelerate our efforts to put these global solutions in place.
In response to the Gulf oil spill, we are expanding our efforts with key partners to establish, upgrade and implement standards of best practices for extractive industries that affect the oceans worldwide. Our field-based engagement with nations and communities around the world, as well as our engagement with extractive industries and our commitment to good science, place us in a strong position to shape policies and practices that threaten oceans in the far corners of the planet. We are in a position to focus our science, partnership, political and private sector capacity on improving acceptable practices for offshore oil, gas and mineral exploitation. We need to ensure that all of the players are at the table so that accountability is as universal as possible. Additionally, it is critical that we engage with key countries and regional organizations, including the U.S., to ensure that the regulatory frameworks and policy incentives of governments become effective in protecting the oceans.
CI and the Private Sector
While it would be easy to issue a blanket statement of condemnation for extractive industries in response to the Gulf oil spill, the harder, but more valuable, action is to work with companies in all sectors to establish, upgrade and implement stronger, more effective standards worldwide.
CI has worked with businesses since our inception. We have long held to the belief that the challenge of the environmental community is to broaden the umbrella and to encourage companies to understand how environmental protection is good for shareholders, employees, customers and companies. Our philosophy has been simple: Engagement leads to progress. Long-standing relationships with companies have resulted in some extraordinary breakthroughs in sustainability.
As an immediate next step, I have asked our leadership team to put together a comprehensive strategy for how we engage with the extractive industry sector on protecting our oceans from future disasters. While there are many specific to work out, this strategy will focus on best practices, engaging governments on stronger environmental policies, and demonstrating success through seascapes and other projects.
In 2001, CI began to work with BP on various initiatives to reduce their environmental footprint. This included the Energy & Biodiversity Initiative,a collaboration with several oil and gas companies and environmental groups to create environmental guidelines for the industry as a whole. Clearly, this was not enough.
At present, our engagement with BP is limited to their support of our Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership with Fauna & Flora International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Birdlife International that is funded by the BP Foundation. This program supports young conservationists, primarily from developing nations, who are carrying out conservation projects on threatened species. There is clear recognition of the value of continuing the good work of the Conservation Leadership Programme, and we are in the process of working out a strategy to ensure that the program is not compromised.
We want our engagement with BP to focus on protecting the oceans and the seascapes from the dangers presented by oil and gas extraction. Once we have our new strategy defined, we will explore with BP and other companies if and how they should be engaged. We will make our decisions as to the participants based upon these discussions.
If this tragedy can be said to have a silver lining, it is the fact that this is our wake-up call. This is what historians refer to as an open moment, that time when we have the opportunity to understand that all of humanity – every person on Earth – needs nature to thrive.
We define our future by our choices. As our friend and great thinker Tom Friedman says, we must become the "RE-Generation": RE-store. RE-generate. RE-imagine our world.
We, the people of CI, are determined to play our role in developing lasting solutions that demonstrate that humanity needs nature to thrive.
Questions about CI's relationship with BP? Learn more.