It seems the world has seen more than enough catastrophes to last several lifetimes. Yet the most arresting and compelling stories arise long after an event. Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill shows behind the media pictures and stories of Alabama and Louisiana Gulf communities rebuilding after the worst oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
Author Antonia Juhasz is a leading oil industry expert and director of the Energy Program at Global Exchange. She has previously written The Tyranny of Oil and The Bush Agenda, along with numerous articles on the oil industry. For this new book, Juhasz spent extensive time with the families of affected Gulf fishermen, industry employees and environmental activists. I learned about Black Tide while watching C-Span, and made an effort to pick up a copy after learning about the compelling effort that went into its documentation.
Learn the human toll of the oil spill
Black Tide outstandingly paints the vivid efforts surrounding the explosion in the Gulf and the politics of the cleanup. Juhusz is hands-on – literally, as a photo shows her holding a sandy tarball on the Dauphin Island shore in Alabama – and an excellent curator of the relationships between all parties involved. For example, Juhasz’s journey through the fishing industry notes the world’s links to the Gulf:
“In Los Angeles, La Paz or London we might not feel the poisoned water or inhale the burning air, but we eat from the same table.”
The opening chapters explain the equipment malfunctions before the rig’s eventual capsizing, details of panicked workers scrambling to safety, and musings from the survivors and victims’ families. Eleven rig workers died the day of the explosion, but Black Tide also reminds you how many more suffered.
With each explanation come inevitable comparisons to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but Juhusz still manages to offer surprising factoids, such as:
“More than 26,000 gallons of oil remain in Prince William Sound today, readily found oozing up on beaches.”
The factoids, concise and excellent, continue into explanations of crude oil’s toxicity and oil’s destructive impact on animals and plant life.
“When oil coats an animal, it can limit the creature’s ability to swim, fly, navigate, maintain body temperature, feed properly and even reproduce. Oil can harm the eyes, mouth and nasal tissue, as well as the immune system, red blood cells and organs like the liver, lungs and stomach.”
No words deteriorate into a clinical classroom tone. Each word serves to remind us of the immensity of the spill’s impact long after the media coverage has moved on.
The communities and small businesses that suffered
Gulf fishermen are the small businesses highlighted in Tide; most were already financially strained after recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Forty thousand fishing families in the region are from Southeast Asia, comprising one-third of the seafood workers in the Southeast. Translation issues were among many factors that played into BP’s failed efforts to include displaced fishermen in its cleanup operations. The program, called Vessel of Opportunity, was meant to improve BP’s tarnished image. Instead, it caused delayed payments through a seemingly biased contractor:
Checks were slow and inconsistent. One source of trouble was identified in BP’s choice of subcontractors. BP hired ESIS, a global risk management firm that provides recovery management services….ESIS, however, advertises its recovery management services as having the “goal of reducing our clients’ loss dollar payout”…
Further damaging were the health effects felt from the ongoing anxiety of the Deepwater Horizon collapse. The Louisiana Department of Health noted 60 percent of its 900 surveyed families had been “feeling worried almost constantly..because of the oil spill,” along with “effects of widespread psychosocial stress.” David Pham, an interview subject and a volunteer at community organization Boat People SOS, noted, “These people want to work. They are ready to work. They do not want to take handouts. They were ready for the season. Now it’s like a lost hope.”
- Investment in updating one technology needs a corresponding update of supporting technology and operations, such as Juhasz’ explanation of booms and skimmers — required by regulation yet both 20 years outdated and inadequate for the size of the spill.
- Corporate plans to involve community in high-profile rescue efforts need to be well planned, but they cannot fully make up for shortages of required risk management tools and technology.
- Industry associations need to proactively include non-members regarding risky industry-wide actions with severe consequences. Juhasz details how distorted media focus on BP overlooked core issues relevant to the whole oil industry and how such omission was the result of concerted effort.
- Consider the extent of media spin, as the book critiques the Obama administration’s early responses to misinformation and to public polls influenced by the oil industry – “one of the most powerful and successful lobbying and public relations campaigns in its long history.”
Black-and-white images, ranging from a pelican covered with oil to near nude anti-BP protesters emphasizing the “naked truth,” reinforce the stories told. Photos on page 164 reveals a tattoo parlor owners’ harsh feelings towards BP and the government. Juhasz also captures the best and worst statements of Tony Hayward, the former BP CEO who had “virtually staked his career on deep offshore operations.”
Black Tide raises questions about potentially pushing past technological capabilities for profit as well as regulatory activism in the face of powerful lobbying forces. It’s not a radical, throw-out-big-business book. It offers fair criticism of BP and the government, and stakes credible claim that repeated disaster relief mistakes are possible as oil companies, with newly developed technological capabilities, extract oil from deeper waters and unfamiliar terrain.
I’ll end with one of the final notes from the author, who also suggests there is an opportunity to make major shifts in programs and policy:
“The problem is that even when they [government and industry] are in our sight, neither the government nor the public has the knowledge to regulate the industry, while the industry clearly lacks the ability to regulate itself….We will only be secure in our energy needs when we are no longer reliant on the oil industry to provide them. We have already begun to make the transition. We now need public policies that help us get there faster.”