Monday, May 31, 2010

Oil spill: Best suggestion for Biloxi fishermen? BP: Better Pray

Time warp photo montage by Larry Ray

The uncertainty of the huge BP oil spill out offshore from Biloxi, Mississippi has not stopped this old world fishing community from holding its annual "Blessing of the fleet" this coming weekend as it has every year since 1929. But it will not be quite the same. This year there is a palpable anxiety from the threat of the looming offshore disaster which will quietly mix in with the Cajun music, boiled shrimp and deep fried mullet better known as "Biloxi bacon."

The festival really gets rolling on a Saturday after Catholic masses for fishermen lost at sea and other recognitions starting on Thursday. But on Saturday the town turns out for a rollicking all day Cajun fais do do street party with lots of delicious seafood and culminates that evening with the coronation of the Shrimp Queen and King on the Biloxi Town Green. The blessing of the fleet takes place early afternoon on Sunday.

Eighty one years ago the fishing boats all rafted up side by side, with the priest climbing from boat to boat to sprinkle holy water and offer blessings for protection from the sea and bountiful catches. More recent blessings of the fleet have taken place with a special dockside altar for the priest who blesses a long and colorfully decorated parade of boats both large and small as they motor past.

This year, the devoutly Catholic ritual of blessing and protecting the fishing fleet and its largely immigrant boat owners and seafood workers should include a new definition of "BP" which now would now seem to mean, "Better Pray."

For almost a month and a half, all of the oil exploration industry's best efforts to staunch a high pressure gusher of thick oil and methane gas from a well blowout 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico have come to naught. Oil giant BP's efforts to crank up their public relations machinery to a loud and preposterous level has served only to offer false hope to an anxiously watching world. Quickly stopping this disaster seems akin to stopping an erupting volcano. The maelstrom beneath the earth's mantel, especially on the barely understood deep sea floor invites disaster if provoked. The rage of unstoppable oil seems to prove the point.

Yet, like wind-up talking toys, well groomed and slickly rehearsed BP top dogs continue to tell all who will listen that none of this is as bad as it seems and that great progress is being made in rounding up the miles of floating oil by either burning it or "collecting" it. Their promises to clean up every drop of oily sludge that has filled sensitive Louisiana marshes and estuaries have not produced any sort of energetic or effective results. Undeterred, BP spews forth statistics and more promises while being careful to first run everything by their lawyers.

BP spokespersons tell one particular story at every possible opportunity as if all listeners were third graders. With confident, and concerned expressions they tell the tale of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic oil dispersant, "like dish washing liquid" that are breaking the oil up into teensie little droplets so that starving bacterial can ravenously eat up all the oil. The BP bacterial buffet is really a wonderful thing, boys and girls!

However, BP denies the recent findings of a half dozen major universities whose marine exploration efforts now suggest that the dispersant being shot directly into the source of the gusher on the sea floor is merely keeping the oil out of sight on the surface. They are finding miles long areas of the broken-up oil hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface, being moved and swept about like huge dark tendrils by currents at the water column at different depths. The new data suggests that bacteria won't make a dent in this movable feast.

Strong currents may move these thick oil ribbons onshore at some point way in the future, or even into the "loop current" in the gulf. This would pull some of the tens of millions of gallons of oil between the tip of Florida and Cuba, and then on up the Atlantic coast.

Oil company big shots don't like to be ordered around. After eight years of basically no meaningful regulation by the Bush-Cheney Minerals Management staff, and having helped formulate Cheney's secret energy policy, BP and all the other big oil companies has learned that it is easy to outwit and out-wait the bureaucrats and that it is also much better for the bottom line. A steady flow of campaign money to state and national politicians also greases things nicely.

Smellier and dirtier than the oil slicks are the shameless political attacks from the nay-saying, do-nothing Republicans intent upon tearing down President Obama. Their first order of business is to blame it all on Obama. And the crass move is playing well because people want something done, anything, and aren't capable of grasping the fact that this disaster may be uncontrollable by Obama, or any other mortal. Again, clear and honest explanations of the difficulty of stopping the oil flow, and the reasons why don't satisfy three year olds.

BP was not required to undertake a detailed worst-case scenario environmental study because of their cozy relationship with Bush-Cheney era Mineral Management employees. Angry Americans should be screaming loudly at the drill baby drill Republicans still in office who, in effect, were in lock step with the Bush no regulation approach to environmental protection.

Meanwhile, the Priest and Catholic Bishop on hand this coming weekend better have plenty of holy water on hand for this year's blessing of fleet, which includes many boats that have just rejoined the fleet after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This year's hurricane season starts just a few days before BP ... Biloxi's Prayers.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mississippi Politics: Oily denial and delusion

Growing up in Texas I was sure politics couldn't get any stinkier, any dumber or any more corrupt than ours. Then later in life I moved to Mississippi and soon saw that Texas politics pales in all categories of underachievement and good-old-boy domination when compared to the Magnolia State.

But Mississippi politics is generally endured much like mosquitoes, stifling summer heat and down here on the gulf coast, hurricanes. Katrina wiped most of the edge of the state off the map in 2005. We had just gotten the place more or less back in shape and looking very good again, then April 20th, 2010, 25 days ago, a British Petroleum offshore oil well in 5,000 feet of water suffered a "worst case scenario." And by now it looks like it is even worse than that.

After a lethal fire, explosion and sinking of a leased drilling rig that killed 11 workers, oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico uncontrollably from a mile below. For almost a month now, millions of gallons of crude oil continue to escape, out of control. The entire world has been following news reports on British Petroleum's failed attempts to stop the flow and to deal with a catastrophe that worsens daily.

Winds and currents have kept the spill off Mississippi shores so far, but the petroleum odor from hundreds of square miles of floating oil some 40 miles offshore has been noticeable here in communities all along the coast.

About a week and a half ago the moment I stepped outside with the dogs to take a morning walk a heavy, oily, almost diesel-like smell filled the air. A steady south wind was blowing. As we got to the park, folks were stopping to ask one another if they "could smell that." We all could.

And the vagaries of wind and air currents has brought the petroleum smell back several more times. Folks have been calling city officials and health departments. There have been several mentions of the oily smell up and down the coast by local news media. Folks with severe asthma were told to check with the doctor if it really got bad. But it was not a really big deal.

Then day before yesterday one of our esteemed politicos, Lt. Governor Phil Bryant, had his photo on the front page of the morning paper with the headline, "Bryant Doesn't Smell The Oil." The Sun Herald's article reported that, "Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant’s response to people in South Mississippi who’ve said they can smell oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf is, 'No, you can’t.'

"Speaking at Wednesday’s Coastal Development Strategies Conference, Bryant said the smell may be coming from their lawn mowers. 'That is not gasoline coming out of the Gulf,' he said."

Bryant, who back slapped his way to hosting the National Association of Lieutenant Governors in July in Biloxi went on about the BP disaster noting it is "not the Exxon Valdez." Phil was as oily and about as crude as his odorless oil out there declaring there is nothing to worry about, "Y'all come on down here, you hear!"

Bryant's imperial pronouncement that no one was smelling anything except lawnmower fumes followed the blithe May 1 pronouncement from Mississippi U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, after a quick fly-over of the gathering spill that, “It’s not as bad as I thought. “It’s breaking up naturally; that’s a good thing. The fact that it’s a long way from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that’s a great thing, because it gives it time to break up naturally."

Taylor, a supposed Democrat, whose voting record would make Senator Mitch McConnell proud, was already fast becoming very unpopular for his dullness and increasingly regular trips to the all you can eat lobbyist campaign contribution buffet. His remarks exhibiting no real concern for the potential offshore threat elicited an outraged reaction from folks up and down the coast. Taylor's political future seems to breaking up naturally as well.

It is completely understandable that area chambers of commerce, businesses and our tourism and seafood industries want to get out the word that our beaches are still clean, seafood is fresh, and that we are open for business. We might well dodge the worst of the damage along with Alabama and Florida. But selling that idea as the oil spill grows, heaves and moves at the whim of sea currents and surface winds is tough to pull off.

Having political buffoons telling the world that folks here aren't smelling anything but lawnmower fumes, and that the oil is "breaking up naturally" only serves to rob any planned promotional campaign of any credibility it may have.

And I haven't even mentioned our Governor, Haley Barbour, who made the national news recently after he declared, dew laps swinging, "When you're a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine you can say, 'well they're gonna hold me to a higher standard.'"

Higher than what, Governor? The next high tide?

graphic by Larry Ray