Quest for oil leaves trail of damage across the globe

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Like many of her neighbors, Celina Harpe is angry about the oil pollution at her doorstep. No longer can she eat the silvery fish that dart along the shore near her home. Even the wind that hurries over the water reeks of oil waste.

"I get so mad," she said. "I feel very sad."

Harpe, 70, isn't a casualty of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She lives in a remote corner of Alberta, Canada, where another oil field that's vital to the United States is damaging one of the world's most important ecosystems: Canada's northern forest.

Across the globe, people such as Harpe in oil-producing regions are watching the catastrophe in the Gulf with a mixture of horror, hope and resignation. To some, the black tide is a global event that finally may awaken the world to the real cost of oil.

"This is a call to attention for all humanity," said Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer in Ecuador who's suing Chevron over oil pollution in the Amazon on behalf of 30,000 plaintiffs.

"Oil has a price," he added, "but water, life and a clean environment are worth much more."

Others say previous oil disasters haven't changed things much, and this one won't, either.

"We're addicted to oil, so the beat will go on," said Richard Thomas, an environmentalist in Newfoundland, Canada, where drilling rigs pepper the coast. "Oil companies will make absolutely sure we don't check ourselves into hydrocarbon rehab anytime soon."

There's no denying that the rust-red plumes of oil and tar balls in the Gulf of Mexico are a potential ecological calamity for American Southern shores. More than half the petroleum consumed in this country, however, is imported from other countries, where damage from exploration and drilling is more common but goes largely unnoticed.

No one's tallied the damage worldwide, but it includes at least 200 square miles of ruined wildlife habitat in Alberta, more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into the rainforests of Ecuador and a parade of purple-black oil slicks that skim across Africa's Niger Delta, where more than 2,000 polluted sites are estimated to need cleaning up.

"The Gulf spill can be seen as a picture of what happens in the oil fields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa," Nnimmo Bassey, a human rights activist and the head of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigeria chapter of Friends of the Earth, said in an e-mail.

"We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the USA," Bassey added. "In Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people's livelihood and environments."

Despite calls for more domestic drilling and new sources of energy, America's reliance on foreign oil has climbed steadily over the years, from 44.5 percent of consumption in 1995 to 57 percent in 2008.

"Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oil fields all over the world, and very few people seem to care," said Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City University of New York and the author of "Amazon Crude," a book about oil development in Ecuador.

"No one is accepting responsibility," Kimerling said. "Our fingerprint is on those disasters because we are such a major consumer of oil."

The United States burns through 19.5 million barrels of oil a day, one-quarter of the world's consumption, more than China, Japan, India and Russia combined. That's 2.7 gallons a day for every man, woman and child, one of highest rates in the world.

The biggest hope for paring the nation's dependence on foreign oil lies in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Alaska and California coasts, but that treasure remains largely untapped. Offshore production has dropped in recent years, from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2003 to 1.8 million in 2008.

The Gulf spill is likely to shrink output even more and increase foreign imports. "We must find a way to do this more safely," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said at a Senate hearing last Tuesday.

If oil production moves abroad, Landrieu said, "We will export some of these problems to countries less equipped and less inclined to prevent this kind of catastrophic disaster."

Others, however, say that such drilling closer to home is too risky. In California, where imports of foreign oil are a record 48 percent, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently pulled his support for an offshore project, citing concerns over the spill in the Gulf. Similar shifts have occurred elsewhere, including Florida and Virginia, where some lawmakers who once supported drilling now are distancing themselves from it.

"You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take that kind of risk?' " Schwarzenegger said at a news conference.

In poor countries such as Ecuador, people don't have a choice.

"The impacts here have been enormous," said Esperanza Martinez, Ecuador coordinator for the international environmental group Oilwatch. "We calculate 1 million hectares" — 2.5 million acres — "have been deforested."

Four decades of spills and leaks by oil companies there, including some from the United States, have fouled thousands of miles of jungle streams and wetland zones.

"What does this all mean to the people? It means high levels of illness in the petroleum zones, where they have 30 percent more cancer," Martinez said. "The worst indicators of poverty are right next to petroleum sites."

For its part, the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents U.S. oil companies, argues that tapping America's offshore oil is more responsible, but the Gulf spill will only make that more difficult, said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the group's president.

"We have to re-earn the confidence, relearn the lessons and move on to explore and access these resources domestically, so we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Reheis-Boyd said.

Much of California's disdain for drilling stems from a 1969 well blowout near Santa Barbara that killed some 3,700 seabirds and captured nationwide attention.

By historic standards, it was a significant but not gigantic spill: More than 3 million gallons leaked, compared with 11 million from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 and four million gallons so far from the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf.

The Santa Barbara spill had a super-sized impact, however, jump-starting an era of environmental activism and helping to inspire the first Earth Day a year later.

"A lot of the oil ended up on the coast, where people are highly sensitized to their environment and activist by nature," said Tupper Hull, the vice president of strategic communications for the Western States Petroleum Association.

"Oil spills are terrible things to see," he said. "They have a visual and visceral and emotional impact on people that cannot be trivialized."

The Santa Barbara spill "set off a chain of events that created an orthodoxy on this issue," he said. "It was a game-changer, not unlike what's now taking place in the Gulf of Mexico."

The pollution-control efforts in the Gulf are said to be unprecedented. They include the deployment of more than 100 miles of protective booms and the use of more than 400,000 gallons of chemical dispersant to break up the oil. Scores of state and federal agencies are helping, too, including the Army National Guard.

That doesn't happen in Nigeria, the fourth-largest source of foreign oil in the U.S., according to Bassey, the environmental leader.

"Officially, there are over 2,000 oil spill sites that need environmental remediation," he said.

In Nigeria, oil firms "wield the big stick and work with state security to silence complaints," Bassey charged. "Pollution impacts fisheries, agriculture and human health. Thanks to the industry, life expectancy is lowest in the oil communities."

Last year, Amnesty International published a report on the Niger Delta region, saying, "Oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring are endemic."

Shell, one of the major operators in the Delta, acknowledges that conditions are difficult. On its website it says that most pollution isn't its fault, however. "Most oil spills — 98 percent by volume in 2009 — are the direct result of militancy and other criminal activity," the company said.

However, Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian environmentalist in the U.S., called West Africa "the wild, wild west of pollution. It's lawless."

Oil companies pollute "with impunity," he said. "There are no consequences."

In northern Alberta, where oil companies are mining tarlike sands, converting them to crude and piping about 830,000 barrels a day south to the United States, indigenous people such as Harpe have complained for years about pollution, illness and the destruction of wildlife habitat.

"It doesn't matter what we say," Harpe said by phone from her home along the Athabasca River in the booming "oil sands" region. "It seems to go in one ear and out the other. We are being ignored."

"What we're seeing in the Gulf is very acute, whereas what's unfolding in the oil sands is much more chronic," said Dan Woynillowicz, the director of external relations for the Pembina Institute, a Calgary environmental group. "As a result, the scale and consequence are not catching the attention of the U.S. media, public and politicians, despite the fact that U.S. oil demand is driving the expansion of oil sands development."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the disturbance is manageable and the mined areas can be reclaimed. "We will mitigate our impact on the land while maintaining regional ecosystems and biodiversity," the group says on its website.

In the Third World, oil companies operate differently from the way they do in Canada or the United States, activists say.

"When they go into a country like Ecuador or Peru, where there is no meaningful regulation, they take advantage of that," charged Kimerling, the law professor. "They are more careless, and go in with an attitude that they can do whatever they want.

"The U.S. government has not shown any interest in the environmental disasters that are being caused by our companies in other countries."

"I think they should," she added. "When we have oil spills in this country we care, we respond, we do everything possible to try to minimize damage.

"But when our companies spill oil in other countries — and those governments don't respond — we don't, either. It sends a chilling message that we don't care."

(Knudson is a staff writer for The Sacramento Bee. Bee Photographer Hector Amezcua contributed to this report.)

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