Friday, October 15, 2010

Oil Spills: An Ecological and Economic Disaster

Although oceans occupy nearly 71 percent of our planet's surface, size is hardly a deterrent for humans from overfishing and polluting our seas. According to oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the sea has become both a "supermarket and a sewer”. As human appetite for seafood continues to deplete and disrupt the aquatic food chain, so does the havoc wrecked on the ocean’s ecosystems through pollution such as plastic waste, fertilizer runoff, and oil spills.

As wide as the sea is, there is a limit to how much damage it could take. To date, as much as 60 per cent of the world's remaining coral reefs are at significant risk of being totally destroyed in the next three decades because of destructive fishing practices and pollution. Further, if the seas were get polluted to the point of no return, it isn’t just the marine species who will bear the loss – so will the human race.

Oil spills are one of the greatest pollutants of the ocean. These include oil spills from large vessels carrying crude oil, offshore platform and drilling rigs explosions as well as spills from wells.

If anything, we should learn about the recent BP Oil Spill which President Barack Obama has called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." The BP oil spill not only killed 11 platform workers and injured 17 others, about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil were released onto the ocean causing massive damage not just to the marine ecosystem but to Gulf residents whose livelihood consisted of fishing and tourism industries.

Although the spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, oil washed up as the Florida barrier island. It was estimated that the spill cost the fishing industry $ 2.5 billion. The U.S. Travel Association further estimated that the economic impact of the oil spill on tourism across the Gulf Coast could exceed $23 billion over a three-year period.

BP was named as the defendant in most suits, along with Transocean, Cameron International Corporation, and Halliburton Energy Services. As on June 2010, over 220 lawsuits have been filed against BP – most of the plaintiffs who claimed for damages were out-of-work fishermen and tourist resorts.

While settlements are ongoing – of the 23,000 individual claims, 9,000 have been settled – it is unlikely that monetary compensation can actually compensate the economic and non-economic damages wrought by BP’s oil spill pollution. The settlement with the affected residents and employees is only just the beginning and cleaning up the effects of the spill is going to take years and for many of those who live along the gulf, life will never be the same again and their lives and livelihood will be impaired for a long time.

Right now, those with foresight are already protesting the $75 million cap in economic damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). However, if it is proven in court that BP or any of its contractors acted with gross negligence or violated any federal safety law or regulation – then they cannot escape legal liability for the oil spill under the $ 75 million cap.

Ocean pollution such as oil spills are not just an ecological disaster – it is also a huge economic blow. If more spills like BP are left to happen, even with the payment of damages to people, nothing can restore the ruined nature and all the animals and marine life killed because of it.