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The price of oil

The massive oil spill in the San Francisco Bay brings home the potential for environmental damage caused by our global economy.

I couldn't take my dogs for a run at their usual park this weekend. Why? Because it is an estuary for the San Francisco Bay, and the Bay's water and surrounding coast is coated with a layer of thick fuel oil that leaked out of a container ship that crashed into the Bay Bridge.

Some 58,000 gallons leaked out of the gash in the side of the ship after it inexplicably hit the bridge, the worst oil spill in the region in twenty years. This is the sea-going equivalent of tapping a parking meter with your bumper while backing into a parking space I suppose. "Ooops! Silly me! Should have seen that." Except the parking meter is hundreds of feet high and thousands of feet long and has cars driving on it.

This is a casebook example of one of the downsides to our global economy and thirst for consumption. It was a Korean ship with a Chinese crew, piloting a container ship that held goods from probably numerous countries destined to be sold in stores in the US. Many of those products are undoubtedly plastic, itself an oil-based material. Most of the time we do not think that much about where the goods we buy come from, or the impact that all the travel required to bring them to us has on the environment. Events like this make it unfortunately clear.

The oil slick has extended up and down almost the entire length of the bay, fouling 40 miles of coastline and killing hundreds of animals and fish in the process, if not thousands. The impact on the fragile Bay Area ecosystem will last for many years. The oil apparently can stay tucked into nooks and crannies for years, impossible to find and remove, but killing or sickening every organism is comes in contact with.

The spill threatens ongoing migrations of thousands of sea birds, and the crab season (due to start a couple of days ago) has been postponed, idling hundreds of crab fisherman. In a little while the chinook salmon will be doing their run into the area, heading straight into now polluted waters, and herring which have been waiting outside the Golden Gate bridge will soon be coming into the bay to spawn, thus endangering themselves as well as their offspring. (More details.)

Hundreds of volunteers showed up over the weekend to help clean the beaches and clean oil off affected birds, only to be told that they could not do much except provide support services (like making bird food) because it required special training to deal with the toxic oil. Simply breathing it or getting it on your skin will cause serious illness.

Oh, and the oil spill that just occurred over the weekend in the Black Sea in Russia? Ten times as big.