President Obama Gets Tough On Off-Shore Drilling

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President Obama is expected to extend the moratorium on permits to drill new deep water oil wells. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Rick Steiner, a conservation and sustainability consultant, who was the University of Alaska's marine advisor for the Prince William Sound Region before and after the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

We're going to take a look at the human, financial and ecological cost of the Gulf oil spill. And in a few moments, you'll hear from a charter boat captain who's lost all of his business and hopes to find work with cleanup crews in the coming days, weeks, months, maybe years.

First, in advance of the president's trip to the Gulf tomorrow, word today that the director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service has been fired. That's the federal agency charged with, among other things, oversight of deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Director Elizabeth Birnbaum is out.

As well today, Barack Obama will reportedly say that he is going to extend the moratorium another six months on permits to drill new deep water wells. He will also cancel or at least delay some drilling projects in the western Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia.

Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal meanwhile has some ideas on what the president might bring with him to the Gulf tomorrow.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Louisiana): I don't know how many thousands of feet of hard boom they can fit in Air Force One, but as many as they can. I'd like them to bring authorization for more skimmers and I'd like them to bring the implementation where every local leader has got an accessible Coast Guard official with decision making authority.

COX: To look at the short and long-term effects of the spill, we've got someone with insight on both the Gulf disaster and the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska back in 1989. Rick Steiner is a conservation and a sustainability consultant who was the University of Alaska's marine adviser for the Prince William Sound region. He is back in Anchorage after spending a couple of weeks in and around Louisiana.

Professor Steiner, welcome to the show.

Professor RICK STEINER (Conservation and Sustainability Consultant, University of Alaska): Hi, Tony, nice to be here.

COX: How much danger to the Gulf ecosystem is there from the spill and particularly from the cleanup effort all those chemicals used to disperse the oil and such?

Prof. STEINER: Yeah, well, unfortunately the enormity of this thing is starting to settle in with a lot of people here. This is enormous. If you use even relatively conservative estimates of the amount of toxic oil coming into the Gulf from this thing, it's, you know, five to 10,000 tons of oil a day. So we may have 300,000 tons or so of this oil in the Gulf of Mexico right now, and it's still coming.

The environmental impacts will be enormous. They already have been. They will almost certainly be long term. And many of these will be unanticipated right now, so we really don't know how they will manifest. But whenever you have this much oil into a productive marine ecosystem, or coastal ecosystem, you have enormous damage.

Now, a lot of the injury that people are familiar with from oil spills is onshore. That's a sort of a traditional bias I think we terrestrial primates have. But there's already substantial injury onshore and the coast of Louisiana and Alabama and such. The marshes are getting hit hard. The sand islands, the Barrier Islands have been collecting a lot of oil. In shore there's two very important fisheries, shrimp and menhaden...

COX: That have all been impacted, yes.

Prof. STEINER: Absolutely.

COX: Do you think let me interrupt to ask this question then. Given the enormity of what you have been describing in great detail so far, do you believe that there has been some urgency missing from the work? And if so, why?

Prof. STEINER: Oh, certainly. Well, you know, BP's oil spill response plan for the Gulf called for equipment and personnel to be deployed and out on scene within 72 hours that would be capable of recovering something like 450 million barrels of oil a day. Obviously that didn't happen. But, you know, the fact of the matter is, is oil spill response is primarily a mythology. It has never ever been effective. Seldom is more than 10 percent of a major marine oil spill recovered.

The biggest concern I've got in this is not the shoreline impact and the near shore impact that's a big one but it's offshore in the deep water because this oil is coming out from 5,000 feet deep, 50 miles offshore and it's continuing to come, day in, day out. And so all this is traditionally out of sight out of mind.

COX: Here's another question for you then, the government military private sector partnership that is trying to contain the spill, is that the best working model for such an operation or should someone be taking the lead? And if so, who?

Prof. STEINER: Well, certainly there should be one commander, and one command chain. The federal government probably should have federalized this and started telling BP and the other response contractors exactly what to do early on. That's probably an omission and a mistake. But regardless, even if you put 100,000 people and 10,000 vessels out there with, you know, a thousand miles of boom, you're not going to contain and recover much of the oil that's coming into the Gulf of Mexico right now.

One of the problems with the unique character of this is as it's spewing up from 5,000 feet deep, it emulsifies heavily with water and so it's very difficult for booms to be effective, where it just scoots right under the booms when it contacts them.

COX: Well, I'm going to only have to interrupt you because we have to move onto another part of the story, I appreciate the information that you have provided for us. Thank you very much. Rick Steiner is a conservation consultant who is the University of Alaska's marine adviser for the Prince William Sound region. He joined us from his home in Anchorage. Thank you again, sir.

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