Lessons of BP Deepwater Horizon: Unlearned and Now Unleashed in Alaska

Shell's Kulluk platform aground at Stikalidak Island, Alaska

Shell’s Kulluk platform aground at Sitkalidak Island, Alaska (USCG Photo)

Just a short time ago the world was mesmerized by a mile-deep live feed of an unstoppable tempest of brown crude and an unprecedented frenzy of human activity undertaking desperate, inadequate attempts to halt the flow and skim, burn, disperse, and boom the rest. In the countless hearings by Congress and the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling that would follow, talk of a cold, distant frontier was unavoidable:  The chilling thought of such a disaster occurring in the Arctic, where remoteness, vastness, heavy weather and unforgiving seas combine to make even simple tasks at sea profoundly more difficult. In the face of the largest oil spill in history, many of us found consolation in that we were finally paying attention to the perils of offshore drilling and these lessons would finally be learned.

What BP Deepwater Horizon illustrated vividly was that civilization’s striking advances in deepwater drilling have far outpaced its ability to clean up should a disaster occur. Perhaps the most chilling of all the Congressional testimony was the revelation by oil company CEOs that the essence of their plan for dealing with a catastrophic oil spill was to not have a catastrophic oil spill. A great idea on paper, but in the real world, an arrogant denial of the limits of technology, human error, and Mother Nature’s merciless power. Read more

Too Much Love for the Fish Everyone Hates

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthus)

The much-maligned, misunderstood and now treasured “trash fish,” the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthius). Photo: © Boris Pamikov

It was a sadly typical meeting of the Board of Collier County (Florida) Commissioners in the late nineties. As the meeting droned on, I tuned it out and fell into deep concentration, obsessively rewriting now long-forgotten remarks I would deliver to the Commission about conservation in Southwest Florida on behalf of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida where I was president and CEO. Our environmental policy director, Michael Simonik, suddenly elbowed me, “Can you believe this?” he gasped. As I looked up, Commissioner Barbara Berry was on her soapbox delivering a monologue, and like Michael, I was stunned to hear what she was saying. She soared into hyperbole to sing the praises of the land developers, declaring Southwest Florida far better than when she arrived, and with a look of disgust tinged with horror, told us how awful it was before the developers came, with all of these unsightly “tangles” of trees and messy vegetation. Nature run amok. Thank god the developers came along and made Southwest Florida a better place, with the neatly manicured lawns of its gated communities (not to mention highest number of golf courses per capita in the world). But as I gazed around the room, there were heads nodding. And I learned something. Read more

Cuba Offshore Oil Drilling: Why We’re Not Ready

The 53,000-ton the Italian-owned, Chinese-built Scarabeo 9 is a state-of-the-art, semi-submersible ultra-deepwater drilling platform capable of working in up to 12,000 feet of water depth with a 50,000 foot (9.5 miles) drilling depth capacity. The platform has accommodations for full-time support of up to 200 workers. (Source: ?Background on Scarabeo 9? in CubaStandard.com by Jorge Pi?on,)

The 53,000-ton the Italian-owned, Chinese-built Scarabeo 9 is a state-of-the-art, semi-submersible ultra-deepwater drilling platform capable of working in up to 12,000 feet of water depth with a 50,000 foot (9.5 miles) drilling depth capacity. The platform has accommodations for full-time support of up to 200 workers. (Source: “Background on Scarabeo 9″ in CubaStandard.com by Jorge Pinon,)

As I write this, a massive offshore oil platform makes its way around the southern tip of the African continent on its journey from Singapore to its final destination within 50 miles of some of our nation’s most environmentally sensitive waters. By year’s end, it will be in operation to drill the first exploratory well more than a mile deep in Cuban waters.

Shortly after Cuba’s discovery of offshore oil more than six years ago, I met with my colleagues at the University of Havana who had just been briefed by the state-run oil company, Cupet (Cubapetroleo). Models predicted that 90 percent of oil from a blowout would be transported northward to the Keys and up along Florida’s East Coast, impacting Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and beyond. The question is, of course, are we ready to deal with such a catastrophe? Read more

An Expedition Dedicated to Alonso, Whom We Lost Tragically Yesterday

Eduardo Alonso Ramos, 1970-2011

Eduardo Alonso Ramos, 1970-2011

His name is Eduardo Alonso Ramos, but everyone calls him “Alonso.” He and Lachi, also a colleague from the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) were supposed to join me for a final meeting at Havana’s Marina Hemingway yesterday in final preparations for our expedition, which they were planning to be part of.

They never arrived. That’s not unusual here in Cuba. Transportation is often a nightmare. Perhaps his motorcycle broke down. Perhaps he couldn’t get gas. Who knows? I wasn’t worried. Though it was a bit unusual that they never called, even last night.

This morning I learned the tragic truth, and it’s still sinking in. Alonso was filling a SCUBA tank at CIM yesterday afternoon when it exploded, killing him instantly. He was only 41. He leaves a wife, 36, who is pregnant. They buried him this morning. Read more

A Statistically Impossible Plea for Help

 

Vessel "Oliva" breaking apart and spilling oil at Nightingale Island (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

Vessel “Oliva” breaking apart and spilling oil at Nightingale Island (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

EARTH DAY 2011: This isn’t what I had planned to write for Earth Day. But it’s the most important thing I can write today. I write these words with a single, challenging purpose: I need you to care deeply about something. I need you to care about something that wasn’t supposed to be possible. I need you to care so deeply that you choose to help. And to make things even more challenging, what I need you to care about is a place you’ve never heard of and are very unlikely to see in your lifetime, a place that’s such an infinitesimally tiny speck lying quite literally in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, it appears on few maps (and even befuddles Google maps). And unless you’re one of the fewer than 300 people that call Tristan da Cunha home, it will take you at best 5-7 days to get to this airstrip-lacking place even if you dash out the door before finishing this paragraph. Tristan da Cunha is, quite literally, the most remote inhabited island in the world. A sign on the island boasts this factoid, alongside a marker pointing east toward the nearest civilization: 1,511 miles to Cape Town, South Africa. Read more

VIDEO: Dramatic Rescue of Freighter Crew by Prince Albert II Expedition Team, Penguin Rescue (CNN)

Dramatic video shot by Kristine Hannon details the rescue of 12 crew members aboard the bulk carrier, “Oliva,” on March 17, 2011, where it grounded the prior day. Within hours of the successful rescue, the ship broke in two and sunk, unleashing a massive oil spill, threatening millions of seabirds including the endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins. Read more

VIDEO: Oil Slick Threatens Endangered Penguins (CNN International)

Dr. David E. Guggenheim, the “Ocean Doctor,” is interviewed about the tragic oil spill at Nightingale Island and rescue operations to save the endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins. Read more

Desperate Penguin Rescue Efforts Continue: Nearly 3,000 Penguins Relocated from Nightingale

Tristan da Cunha's community swimming pool converted for penguin rehabilitation

Tristan da Cunha's community swimming pool converted for penguin rehabilitation

During a briefing by The Ocean Foundation to the conservation NGO community in Washington, DC, Katrine Herian, a project officer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) stationed at Tristan da Cunha, informed us by telephone that the desperate effort to rescue endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins from neighboring Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands (the latter a World Heritage Site) continues, with roughly 2,300 penguins already relocated for rehabilitation on Tristan da Cunha and another 600 birds expected last evening. Read more

Oil Now Surrounds World Heritage Site, Inaccessible Island. Thousands of Endangered Penguins, Seabirds at Risk

Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site

Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site

ABOARD PRINCE ALBERT II: I spoke today with Katrine Herrion, a project officer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) stationed at Tristan da Cunha.

Katrine was camped on Inaccessible Island last weekend and reports that as of Sunday, oil completely surrounded the island. She and her team observed nearly 100 oiled penguins just before they departed. Clearly many more are being impacted.

Trevor Glass, Director of the Tristan da Cunha Department of Conservation was planning to return to Tristan da Cunha from Nightingale Island with around 750 penguins for rehabilitation. This represents a small percentage of the number of birds estimated to be impacted at this point, conservatively estimated at more than 10,000.

Because penguins cannot fly, it is impossible for them to avoid the oil when entering and exiting the water. Oil impacts the waterproof properties of their feathers and makes them vulnerable to hypothermia by reducing their feather’s insulation abilities. Oil can seriously impact the birds’ eyes and other tissues and can poison them if they ingest the oil while attempting to clean their feathers. A number of oiled seals have also been observed on Nightingale Island. Read more