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TEDxOilSpill: Surface Slicks, Deep Water Despair, Galaxies of Oil Platforms and Why We Really, Truly Don’t Need Oil

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The bottlenose dolphin swimming the Gulf of Mexico was “splattering oil out its blow hole.” The obscenity of such a thing was too much for marine conservationist, author and founder/director of the Blue Ocean Insitute, Carl Safina, whose voice broke as he told the story in the middle of a lecture at the TEDxOilSpill conference. No matter what BP may promise in its ubiquitous ads, there is simply no way to make something this horrible “right.” But as speaker after speaker noted, BP could start making things at least a little less wrong by coming clean with information.

The TEDxOilSpill Expedition team – photographers Duncan Davidson and Kris Krug, videographer Pinar Ozger and writer Darron Collins – were kept far from the water’s edge by BP’s private security firm, Talon,  whose staff controlled the beaches. When Collins literally crossed the line by stepping over a miles-long orange boom dozens of yards from the water line, he was accosted by a team right out of “Monsters Inc.,” who set about washing his feet and decontaminating his shoes with great flurry and fanfare.

The Fat Orange Line: Boom Barrier on the Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 2010; TEDxOilSpill Expedition, photo credit: Duncan Davidson (read, view more & donate!)

It took persistence, luck and a gutsy pilot to score a flight into the massive”no fly” zone to better see and document water set afire and oily sheen to the horizon.

What the photos can’t tell you is what it smells like. So let me describe it for you:  Walk into a garage. Take a case a motor oil and dump it onto the ground. Take a bunch of gasoline. Pour it on top of it. Now take a can of propane. Crack it open. Let the propane vent out into the air. Maybe take another and light it on fire. Now take some Windex. Throw it into the mix. That’s what it smells like when you’re orbiting the site.

Duncan Davidson


Photographs and video also can’t show what is happening beneath the surface – though what little we have seen, isn’t good: video of the broken pipe gushing clouds of oil and gas 24/7 on “BP cam”; video from 20 to 30 feet down taken by intrepid divers, among them Philip Cousteau, another of the day’s speakers, revealing sheets of red-brown “mousse,” undulating in the waves, blotting out the sun, blotting out life.

Yet it is the devils you cannot see that present the most insidious threat to recovery. “We have only explored about 5% of the world beneath the sea,” noted Dave Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the best of times, we barely have a clue what’s going on down there. “We don’t know how it works. Especially a mile deep.”

What has been glimpsed is humbling. Parts of the deep ocean – regions that have never seen a ray of sun – have more life in terms of density and diversity than a tropical rain forest.

No one has any idea what the effects of a massive oil spill or the massive use of dispersants will have on these ancient ecosystems, or, indeed, how these ecosystems fit into greater Gaian scheme of things.

“Who’s calling these shots?,” asked Gallo. “At the deep ocean, who’s in charge?” Fundamental questions remain unanswered: “What’s coming out that well? What’s the mix of oil, gas, the toxic elements? What’s the flow rate? … Where has it gone? Where is it going? … What will the impact be? … Why don’t we know?”

Some of the best ocean warriors I know are still sitting in their labs, wondering what’s going on… It is another war. It is another Gulf War.

Oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon pipe - about the diameter of a sewer cover; Originally estimated by BP at 1,000 barrels per day, the volume of the flow is now guesstimated at an "Exxon Valdez" every 5 to 7 days

It is a war we are fighting blind, armed with a “fleet” of only a handful of small robotic submersibles. While up top, hearty souls such as the TEDxOilSpill Expedition team and John Wathen of the Waterkeeper Alliance (Keith Olberman interview), can try to run BP’s “no-fly” gauntlet to bag digital proof of horizon-to-horizon destruction, it is impossible for any independent observers to witness what is going on beneath the waves. Instead, we wait to see what floats to the top: dead whales, pods of sick dolphins, oil-soaked birds and turtles. But as BP sets fire to the sea, spreading the pollution even further into the atmosphere, whatever life, or struggling life, that may have floated to the top, is incinerated or sent to the depths, dead.


Toxicologist Susan Shaw, founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, wants to know what, specifically, is in Corexit, the oil dispersant BP has added to the Gulf by the millions of gallons. On June 8, over a month after the spill, BP released a list of ingredients peppered with the words “derivatives” and “distillates” to gloss over the details, knowing that only a handful of wonky chemists would notice. “These are whole big groups of many, many compounds,” Shaw pointed out. “They are not identified and why? Trade secrets, again. BP is running the show.”

Spraying oil dispersant, Corexit, on surface slicks in the Gulf of Mexico

Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s studies suggest Corexit is fairly benign, labeled “practically nontoxic” when half the shrimp or fish died at exposures of 130 parts per million and”slightly toxic” when the seafood went belly up at concentrations between 19 and 55 parts per million, those tests tested the wrong thing: The question is not what Corexit does in isolation, but in combination with oil.

According to Shaw, it is a nightmare. The dispersant makes it easier for oil to get into the skin and organs of animals and microbes because it breaks down the oily lipids protecting cells. In effect, it serves as a oil delivery system, transporting toxic compounds to where they can wreak the most havoc.

Government agencies and corporations often use the phrase, “the best science available,” which sounds cutting-edge and progressive. But when “the best science available” isn’t very good, it can be dangerous. What we don’t know can kill.

Diving in the slick goo of the Gulf, Shaw saw first-hand “the web of death” as small plankton at the base of the food chain were enveloped by globules of Corexit-treated oil.

* Read about Consensus Statement: Scientists oppose the use of dispersant chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico – drafted by Susan Shaw)

Naturally-occurring oil-loving microbes can make a faster meal out of smaller blobs, but they are slow eaters. Adding a dash of fertilizer can help speed up the feeding process, said Ron Atlas, a microbiologist who worked on the Exxon Valdez and several other spills. But “speedy” can mean 8 years instead of 10, he explained, and in a situation as literally fluid as this one, all bets are off.  By the time microbes might make a dent in the Deepwater Horizon gusher –  now measured in “Exxon Valdezes” (one every 5 to 7 days) – it will be a silent sea, with only a fraction of the life that filled it prior to the spill.

Corexit-treated oil also easily and sereptitiously slips past skimmers and booms, taking the “low road” to marsh and shore. Many now fear that a hurricane-driven tidal surge will transport this poisonous water inland, turning whole towns toxic.

For Carl Safina, the only explanation for its use is a cover-up. “Personally, I think the dispersants are an attempt to hide the body because we have put the murderer in charge of the crime scene.”


The use of dispersants also baffled Sylvia Earle, a Time magazine “Hero of the Planet,” TED Prize-winner and all around emeritus: “If you were to write a recipe for good health for the Gulf of Mexico, for the lives of the creatures who live there, it would not include use of dispersants to clean up this mega-spill. It would not include the spills at all.”

Earle, who just returned from diving among whale sharks feasting on plankton about 70 miles off the Louisiana coast, is torn between delight at seeing more whale sharks than she could count and worry because these surface-skimmers are right in harm’s way. If the spill oozes into their feeding grounds, they wouldn’t be able to avoid either filtering gallons upon gallons of oil-tainted water, or soaking in harmful aerosols at the surface.

She is also worried about the devastating effects on fish populations that rely on the Gulf’s sargassum for nurseries. Lose the sargassum, which soaks up oil like a sponge, and fish populations, including bluefin tuna, will crash. If the slick is picked up by the Gulf stream, as many fear, it will threaten another vital nursery, the Sargasso Sea, a 5,000 square kilometer “liquid jungle” floating in the mid-Atlantic just south of Bermuda. Both are what Earle calls “Hope Spots,”which if protected could help restore the oceans to their former healthy bounty.

The Deepwater Horizon gusher is just the latest in a centuries-long marine assault that has led to the depletion of fish stocks and put fully one-third of all marine mammals in danger of extinction.

Now is the time. We have a little window before it is too late to take actions that will secure for – not just the creatures of the sea – but for all of us connected to the sea. We are sea creatures.


A "galaxy of oil rigs" in the Gulf of Mexico / Nearly 4,000 40-story tall rigs drilling 32,000 wells; map credit: NOAA

Out of sight and out of earshot, right off the shores of the Gulf Coast, is a sprawl of 4,000 drilling platforms tapping into 32,000 wells, stitched together by thousands of miles of pipeline, pumping 1.7 million barrels of oil each day. “This is our addiction. This is what it looks like,” said Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

It is “a galaxy” of platforms, vast yet so dense, ship captains navigate by “constellations.” Each platform rises from the water forty stories tall, powered by massive diesel generators whose locomotive sound defines the region. 30,000 mostly men work on the platforms, with thousands more running supply ships, running refineries or working in other support-related jobs.

Stunningly, even as oil and gas continue to spew from a broken pipe a mile-plus beneath the surface, a number of political leaders – many if not all beneficiaries of oil industry campaign largesse – have protested against any move to stop, or even pause, drilling. They have positioned themselves as defenders of jobs, and their constituents, with few other ready options, believe them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Speaker after speaker hammered home the message that oil is a jobs-killer: Recycling fishermen into clean-up crew, trading nets for booms, doesn’t count. There is a brighter future, by every definition, they promised, in developing a clean energy economy: wind turbines, solar panels, biofuels, efficiency.

But as doable as doing without oil may be, the logistics are complicated by a world designed around cars and trucks. “We have designed a system where if you want to get and keep a job, it is much more important to have a car that runs than to have a GED,” noted Lisa Margonelli, energy policy analyst at the New America Foundation and author of “Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.”

We don’t talk about the amount of oil that we use. We talk about energy independence. We talk about hydrogen cars. We talk about biofuels that haven’t been invented yet. Cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of how we deal with oil.

The costs drop to the bottom line: Families with two children living on $50,000 per year spend more on their car and fuel than on taxes and health care, Margonelli pointed out. “Gasoline costs are a tremendous drain on the American economy. They are also a drain on individual families. And it’s kind of terrifying to think about what happens when prices get higher.”

Key to fixing the system is changing the game so that the rules quit favoring oil consumption. That means charging drivers who drive more higher insurance rates. It means providing more and better public transportation options so we can all drive less. It means adding a small gas tax to make gas less desirable, and fund greener alternatives. It meas adding a surgeon general’s-style warning to the bill to help consumers connect the true-cost dots:

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that ever gallon of gas you burn in your car creates 29 cents in health care costs.


Few have focused as intently or as long on turning fossil fuel companies into fossils as Amory Lovins,  co-founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute. His latest initiative, Reinventing Fire (RF), builds on more than three decades of research:

Imagine fuel without fear. No climate change. No oil spills, dead coal miners, dirty air, devastated land, lost wildlife. No energy poverty. No oil-fed wars, tyrannies, terrorists. No leaking nuclear wastes or spreading nuclear weapons. Nothing to run out. Nothing to cut off. Nothing to worry about. Just energy abundance. Benign and affordable for all. Forever.

Although Lovins wasn’t able to attend TEDxOilSpoil in person, he created a video for the conference with background on RF research, which is still in progress.


Christen Lien’s layered viola compositions brought the crowd gathered at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre – along with hundreds who watched  the conference via livestream – literally back from the brink of despair. There was little good news from the Gulf and only daunting tasks ahead. Meanwhile, the oil keeps gushing, the clock keeps ticking, the death tolls keeps mounting, the social costs keep rising and now hurricanes are coming.

Twitter satirist @bpglobalpr / Leroy Stick, who has ridden the razor’s edge of plausible corporate idiocy to 180,000+ follower fame, summed it up with trademark brevity: “If you think the status quo is unacceptable, then don’t accept it.”

Easier said than done, perhaps. But what else are we going to do?



Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 – that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).

Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis, X Prize CEO.

With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.