Oil Spills Leading to Global Sustainable Energy

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Introduction : Gulf Oil Spill

In April 2010 the offshore drilling rig, leased by the oil company BP, exploded and caused an enormous oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. After 87 days, 750 liters of oil had already leaked into the Gulf by the time the well was capped on 15 July 2010, making this tragedy the largest accidental ocean spill in history[1]. Vast amounts of oil were leaking, or in fact pouring, into the ocean and were gradually reaching the coast of the southern states of America and the east shore of Mexico were it caused short- and long-term effects.

This form of pollution is caused by humans and has disastrous consequences for politics, the economy, the industry, but most importantly the environment, and all of this on a global scale. 
BP took full responsibility for its disaster, partly due to pressures from locals and environmental NGOs who also urged the government to take immediate, firm actions as they believed that BP’s ability to solve the problem was not that high. Even though BP closed the leak and thereby somehow limited the damage, it became clear that ‘the Gulf of Mexico incident lays bare how ill-prepared the industry is for a spill of this size’[2].

Stakeholder Involvement

This recent oil spill is not the first, but one of many oil leakages caused by accidents on offshore drilling rigs (or during oil transportations) in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas worldwide. According to Godoy[3] the oil industry and governments of both the United States and Mexico are even wanting to accelerate the exploration of oil and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico region. If we proceed this way and are not going to change anything about the current practices of offshore oil drilling, this current oil spill will most probably not be the last one either. Therefore stricter governmental regulations and involvement of other stakeholders, such as environmental NGOs and locals (e.g. fishermen, tourist sector, etc.), are needed.
Different stakeholders have diverse views and interests and we could either head towards the monologue direction or towards a direction of escalating discussion when dealing with this complex problem. However, the most successful direction to take would most probably be somewhere in the middle, namely that of a constructive dialogue.

Negative impacts of oil spills

Oil spills cause many uncertainties, including both environmentally and politically. Effects of oil spills are acute as well as long-lasting[4] and changing weather conditions can cause the oil to move closer towards the coasts causing an even bigger environmental disaster[3]. The size of the impact can be of such extent that it is almost impossible to deal with; it could for example increase the man-made dead zone (areas in the ocean in which there is not enough oxygen due to massive algae growth) causing marine life to extinct. Immediate mortality of marine and land life (e.g. fish, birds, whales, etc.) are the direct visible effects of an oil spill. However, when examining the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the entire ecosystem near the accident will eventually be harmed, including the possibility of biodiversity loss (see [5], [6], [7]). The ‘persistence of toxic subsurface oil and chronic exposures...[will continue] to affect wild life [and] [d]elayed population reductions and cascades of indirect effects [will postpone] recovery’[8]. Thus, even when the oil is being removed from the ocean and coasts, the impacts will continue to harm the environment in indirect ways which cannot be entirely predicted.

The oil spill could in the long run negatively affect the (marine) ecosystem services due to the loss of biodiversity. According to Daily[9], ecosystem services are:

‘the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfill human life. They maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods... The harvest and trade of these goods represents an important and familiar part of the human economy. [Furthermore], ecosystem services are the actual life-support functions, such as cleansing, recycling, and renewal, and they confer many intangible aesthetic and cultural benefits as well’.

Ecosystem services are therefore very valuable for humans and the environment. ‘Ecosystem services are generated by a complex of natural cycles, driven by solar energy, that constitute the workings of the biosphere’ and these cycles are working on various scales and rates. However, human influences interrupt these cycles and we are unable to substitute its functions. The oil spill is such an interruption and can badly affect the marine ecosystem services which include ‘global materials cycling; transformation, detoxification and sequestration of pollutants and societal wastes; support of the coastal ocean-based recreation, tourism, and retirement industries; coastal land development and valuation; and provision of cultural and future scientific values’[10]. The loss of species caused by the toxic oil influences the biodiversity of the marine system and causes depletion and loss of its so many and diverse services. Besides environmental problems, it will also cause economic troubles since ecosystem services are important for our economy.

Political uncertainties regarding the oil spill also arise as governments from different countries are involved and each has their own perspective on dealing with the problem; the oil spill is crossing borders. Furthermore, both countries want to accelerate the exploration and drilling of oil and as this is beneficial for economic growth[3]. Nevertheless, also environmental protection is taken into consideration, or is needed to, due to pressures from outside.

Setting the Priorities Straight

The question is therefore what has its priority: preventing degradation of the ecological environment or increasing economic benefits (in the short term)? Protecting the (maritime) environment should be the main priority as a lot is at stake and it should be realized that the economy actually depends on its services. Another trade-off is the loss of jobs by locals, such as fishermen, but the creation of new jobs for, for example, cleaning up the oil. Furthermore, due to the loss of a lot of oil, prices will increase which will cause higher prices for fuel and sooner or later for products which are (partially) made out of this source. Governments could influence these prices by reducing the taxes; however, this choice will diminish their incomes and could thereby also affect their spending on environmental issues (see [11]). Thus, the decisions which have to be made by the governments should be considered carefully as trade-offs are involved, influencing many stakeholders.

Oil complexity

The complexity of the problem is not minor; we are dealing with a complex issue since the oil spill entails many uncertainties and risks (see also[12]), intertwining different aspects in many ways, which are reaching global proportions and carrying irreversible consequences. Thus, the affects of the oil spill are not only local but are causing problems worldwide; its global scale should be taken into consideration when dealing with the problem (see [13]). The stakes are high and the choices which need to be made are urgent[14]. Also, many stakeholders, at different levels (see [15]), are involved and ‘the tradeoffs between competing activities, and between individual and societal interests, are becoming ever more evident’[9]. Another aspect making it a complex problem is that it is difficult to assess the exact costs of the damage being caused by an oil spill. This is ‘either because the values of damaged ecosystems cannot be put into monetary terms, or because the damages may be transferred into the future’[4]. It is therefore difficult to decide how much (and to whom) the “oil polluter” should pay.

According to Rennen and Martens[16], ‘key historical landmarks of economic, political, technological, social-cultural, and environmental developments... have pushed the process of globalization further’. The globalization timeline shows these landmarks, including the turning points. The oil spill will get a position on the “globalization timeline” as another destructing event caused by humans. It is a (negative) landmark causing environmental degradation. The problem of possible future oil spills remains and the long term impacts of the previous oil spills have not yet been (entirely) solved. Even though increased consumption of fossil fuels like oil – a part that represents globalization – negatively impacts our environment, more is needed to evoke a change.

Solving the Oil Problem

In order to deal with the complexity of this problem, “extended peer community” is required[17]. ‘[P]ersons directly affected by an environmental problem will have a keener awareness of its symptoms, and a more pressing concern with the quality of official reassurances, than those in any other role’[14]. In the case of oil spills, local fishermen and the local coastal zone management department could for example get involved (see [2]). Furthermore, ‘[t]he extension of the peer community...can positively enrich the processes of scientific investigation. Knowledge of local conditions may determine which data are strong and relevant, and can also help to define the policy problems’[14] ‘[I]n the USA, with its traditions of devolution of power to the local level, ‘intervenors’ in some decision processes are provided with support; in other countries [such as Mexico] they may be ignored or actively hindered’. It is therefore recommended to involve locals and to decentralize power. Furthermore, in order to use the “extended peer community” method in a successful way, good communication and transparency is needed by all stakeholders involved. Also, coming back to the theory of Verweij et al., Funtowicz & Ravetz[14]:

‘Only a dialogue between all sides, in which scientific expertise takes its place at the table with local and environmental concerns, can achieve creative solutions to such [complex] problems, which can then be implemented and enforced’.

Global sustainabe energy serving as a solution

Particular disasters such as an oil leakage have poven not to immediately lead to a paradigm shift in global use of energy resources. However, it is crucial to accelerate a future with global sustainable energy by designing (new) policies and developing new and improving current sustainable and renewable resources.

To prevent future oil spills is to “simply” reduce our reliance on oil and thus shift ‘away from fossil fuels to a high efficiency, renewable-based energy system’[18]. And as the report of the Global Environmental Facility mentions[19]:

‘A transition to renewable is inevitable, not only because fossil fuel supplies will run out – large reserves of oil, coal and gas remain in the world – but because the costs and risks of using these supplies will continue to increase relative to renewable energy’.

The need for a paradigm shift towards “greener” energy will most likely be firstly recognized by locals as they experience immediate effects of the oil spill and are most severely affected in different ways. This recognition can be put forward by the “extended peer community”; humanity should be made aware of the fact that the use of renewable energy resources can save the (maritime) environment. Accordingly, the paradigm shift towards sustainable energy would rather occur first locally instead of globally.
To support this paradigm shift towards sustainability (see also [20], [21]), ‘[t]ransition management can be considered as a specific form of multi-level governance...whereby state and non-state actors are brought together to co-produce and coordinate policies in an iterative and evolutionary manner on different policy levels’[22], offering science, innovation and sector policies.
However, oil represents power and is for many countries a primary source of income. If the demand for oil decreases due to the rise of alternative energy, many economies will suffer unless they change their reliance on this resource.

Thus, in order to solve the complex problem of oil spills, it is essential to approach the dilemma from multiple angles and to design a deliberative policy. Dealing with the problem on a local basis may eventually lead towards global actions; inspiring other nations to act.


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