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In what is becoming known as the “Earth Day Blowout,” a premier oil rig exploded and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean last week, ultimately sinking on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.
The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon was staffed with over 100 employees, 11 of whom are still missing (and presumed dead) with several others still hospitalized. Like the coal mining accident earlier this month, this Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bringing to light the damages done by accidents on oil rigs. From 2001 to 2007, there were over 1,400 accidents involving oil rigs. In these accidents, 41 people died and 302 were injured. Investigations into these previous accidents show that human error generally accounts for causation of problems. That’s to be expected; after all, we’re only human, right? But the question remains: do we want to continue risking the lives of workers and the integrity of our environment to perpetuate offshore drilling?
Right now, the oil spill is leaking at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day from a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface. The spill covers an area of 1,800 square miles – larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Originally, the slick of oil on the ocean’s surface measured a mere two miles by eight miles. BP sent 32 vessels to try to contain the spill before it hits the Gulf Coast, where it has the potential to damage an already fragile Louisiana coastline.
This is not a concern to take lightly. We’ve seen in the past that oil spills can have devastating effects. For example, look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. That accident spewed 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 square miles. Wildlife are still feeling the effects of that accident today. At the time, thousands of animals perished. Birds became soaked in oil and were unable to fly to safety. Some otters, covered in oil, froze to death in the Arctic waters, while others tried to lick the oil off their fur and poisoned themselves to death. Two short years later, the largest oil spill in history occurred: the Gulf War oil spill, which dumped up to 462 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, covering an area 42 miles wide by 101 miles long.
Are we okay with this? Are we okay with painful accidents like the Deepwater Horizon and others in the fossil fuel world, such as the loss of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine explosion earlier this month? What price are we willing to pay to fuel our dependence on fossil fuels? Accidents like these are sad and heart-wrenching. But hopefully, they spark new ways of thinking about energy and ways of obtaining it. There are more options and better options. We have to pay for renewables and alternatives, and it’s up to us to decide what is more valuable: our people and our environment or cheap fuel.