Everyone knows that oil and water do not mix. Few know the complete costs of this nation’s petroleum addiction on the world’s water systems and the life they sustain. But author Peter Maass exposes the worldwide devastation resulting from combining oil and water in his book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.
The oil spill on the Gulf Coast may soon exceed the environmental disaster created by the Exxon Valdez spill, which may have horrified Americans with photos of oil covered birds, but did nothing to reduce our nation’s appetite for oil. The Gulf region is home to 40% of America’s fisheries, which will be out of production indefinitely. Fisherman are certainly impacted, and those who eat fish.
But the consequences of this latest spill are shocking only to Americans because our country has long exported the toxic cost of oil production to countries far from our own shores. Americans use the majority of the world’s petroleum production. Even if the United States paid its fair share of the risks by drilling more on our nation’s own coasts, America would be forced to continue to rely on the world for its current oil demands. And somewhere on our planet, each and every day, there is a spill of that oil into a river or ocean.
Maass spent eight years traveling the globe to discover the costs of oil production to the planet and its inhabitants. What Maass discovered is that Americans are ruining the world in a quest to satisfy our thirst for oil. Apart from the human bloodshed that is involved in obtaining and maintaining access to the world’s petroleum reserves, and the climate changing costs of burning petroleum, the environmental devastation caused by petroleum extraction is horrifying. In one scene reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s environmental apocalypse in The Road, Maass takes a canoe ride into the non-fictional nightmare in Nigeria.
Soon I was greeted by King Tom Mercy, leader of the local Ijaw community. He wore a T-shirt and a frown. “This is where the oil and gas comes out,” he said.
Aboard his canoe the next day, we moved through mangrove creeks in which there were no screeching of monkeys, no hippos or crocodiles in the water, no butterflies floating in the air. Between the war and the pollution, this was both a dead zone and a killing zone. At some spots, the shoreline was shaved of vegetation and fenced off, to protect flares and pits that burned off excess oil and gas. The earth in these places was, quite literally, on fire.
The smell of oil was strong, even when wells or flares were not visible. Where did it come from? I looked down and saw a film of oil on the river. At a flow station where fluids dripped into the water from a tangle of metal pipes that had the appearance of industrial art, a Shell sign said, “Keep Nigeria Safe and Clean.” The canoe stopped in front of six wellheads coated in oil that fell, drop by drop, into the water. If a match were thrown into the river, we would be engulfed in flames.
“How can we expect to catch fish?” King Tom asked. His anger was no performance. “Let’s go,” he ordered. We soon passed a patrol boat with unsmiling soldiers. “You see how we live.”
Most Americans have been spared the environmental impact of our nation’s thirst for petroleum except in a few dramatic instances when the realities of oil and water have hit home in Alaska’s pristine waters, on the beaches of one of California’s coastal gems in Santa Barbara, and now, with the beautiful and bountiful Gulf Coast.
Through water flowing in oceans and rivers around the world, our country is inextricably linked to all nations. The answer to preventing future spills is not to protect only America’s shores. It is time for the United States to lead all countries in stopping the dependence on petroleum before the planet’s waters, the most vital natural resource that we share with a worldwide community, stop supporting life.
(This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post. It has been reprinted here with permission.)