July 1st, 2010
01:45 PM ET

7 oil crisis views, from comic to tragic

Richard Galant
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/01/t1.boatinoilywater.jpg caption="Oil dispersants are visible in the water. They work the same way dishwater detergent would work against grease." width=300 height=169]

The one-day TEDx OilSpill conference in Washington provided many perspectives on the oil crisis. Ranging form satirical, to conservationist, to heart-breaking, individuals have reacted to the oil spill... here are seven views of the crisis as described at the conference:

Casey DeMoss Roberts

Roberts, of the Gulf Restoration Network, sketched the ways in which the oil industry has become embedded in Gulf communities that once relied only on fishing for their livelihood. In one example she cited: The shrimp festival in Morgan City, Louisiana, was renamed the "Shrimp and Petroleum festival" in 1960.

She recalled her father's death in an offshore oil accident in Asia and contrasted the precautionary principle used in drug regulation, where products are tested for safety before they're marketed, to the oil industry, where she said safety precautions are too often instituted only after an accident.

Lisa Margonelli

Margonelli is the author of "Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank" and a fellow of the New America Foundation. She noted that oil spills tend to be "politically very galvanizing," with photos of oil-soaked birds drawing an emotional public response.

The 1969 Santa Barbara spill, which was a tiny fraction of the size of the BP leak, prompted the modern environmental movement, the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and led to moratoriums on drilling on the East and West coasts.

Instead of cutting back on oil consumption, Americans just grew to rely on getting it from other places. Drilling in the Gulf, where there was no moratorium, helped pick up the slack, she said.

The U.S. has also "exported" its oil spills, she said, by encouraging oil development in places such as Nigeria, which has had thousands of spills in the past several decades. She added that the military and political costs of getting oil from the Middle East and other regions of the world still have to be paid for, though it hits people when they pay their taxes, not at the pump.

Ronald Atlas

Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville, said while the effects of the leaking oil are partly visible, "in tragic photos of pelicans, gut-wrenching pictures ... what we don't see is what's going on in the world of bacteria."

He said for hundreds of species of bacteria, oil is a food source, and these can contribute to degrading the oil, eventually turning it into inert substances that don't damage the environment. But he warned that the process will take years and years.

"What we discovered 40 years ago, you could speed up the process by adding fertilizer, and ... you could get the bacteria to grow faster."

That research was applied in Alaska, with the result that over a period of years, more of the oil was consumed, Atlas said. He said that by 2001, NOAA found that 99.6 percent of the oil had disappeared from Prince William Sound, 13 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

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Filed under: Gulf Oil Spill
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