August 3, 2010
Over 100 days. As much as 200 million gallons of crude oil. 2 million gallons more of chemical dispersant. Oppressive heat and a random tropical depression. These are the ingredients of an unprecedented oil spill and its aftermath three months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Several nights ago I sat in an audience listening to a panel of seven scientists as they tried to explain what the ongoing impacts might be for our beloved Gulf and the wildlife that teems within it. Some of the news seemed positive, as they explained that the bacteria in the water naturally degrades the oil and works to rid the water of the crude invader. But as I picked my way through the scientific lingo searching for bits I could really understand, one phrase kept coming up that seemed the truest thing they could say: "we just don't know".
Scientists all over the country are saying the same thing. Robert Weisberg, a professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida, has said, "We are operating out of ignorance. It may be no threat whatsoever or it may be a serious threat." The director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, Ron Kendall, has been quoted: "We've never dealt with this before, the complication of this much oil coming from the deep sea and being hit heavily with chemical dispersants. We have conducted the largest environmental toxicology experiment in the history of this country in the Gulf of Mexico."
This "experiment" has come at a very expensive price to thousands whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted and destroyed since April 20. There are some glimmers of hope. Since the cap was placed on the spewing well and the oil was "contained" in July, tourism has picked up slightly. Over the weekend in Mississippi, the waters north of the barrier islands were re-opened for recreational and commercial fishing and shrimping (though crabbing and oystering are still prohibited). And it appears that the "top kill" procedure may now be in sight, the first step toward permanent stoppage of the leak. These are all helpful and positive signs.
And yet I'm still stuck on that phrase: we just don't know. We just don't know what the long-term impacts of this massive disaster may be on the waters and wildlife. We just don't know how long it will be before the charter boat captains and shrimpers and seafood restaurants and their workers can recover from their income losses and return to life as they knew it "before" this thing happened.
But this I do know, a reminder I was given while listening to that line-up of scientists describe the mind-numbing complexity of the Gulf's ecosystem: God's Creation is a wondrous thing. It is a finely woven tapestry of living creatures, interdependent and carefully balanced, resilient yet incredibly fragile. And God has given us this marvelous miracle of abundant life to nurture and protect. As I contemplate what may now be some closure on the first crisis stage of this environmental tragedy, I come full circle, back to those initial ponderings I shared in my very first update. Might this disaster serve as a launching point for a more authentic, impassioned discussion among people of faith regarding our roles as stewards of God's Creation? Might it prompt a different kind of conversation about our dependence on oil, our insatiable consumption of energy and resources? Can the horror many of us have felt looking at oil-soaked birds and oil-drenched marshes be translated now into a powerful change in behavior?
The long-term effects of this oil spill tragedy are a mystery yet to be solved. But of our responsibility as God's faithful stewards there can be no doubt. God's dazzling Creation is ours to protect. 200 million gallons of crude oil later, I hope we see that a bit more clearly.