06 April 2010


In my March 31 post, I took issue with President Obama's proposal to expand off-shore drilling to vast reaches of the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the entire North Slope of Alaska. Among other reasons, I cited the environmental and economic costs arising from the risk of oil spills. As if to prove my point, only three days later, on April 3, a Chinese cargo ship carrying 72,000 tons of coal ran aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef (top image, click to enlarge). This coral reef is the world's largest single structure made by living organisms, stretches for 1600 miles, covers an area of 133,000 square miles, and is clearly visible from space. It is home to untold thousands of species of marine organisms (bottom image).

The cargo ship was an astonishing seventeen miles off course, and at impact was on an illegal course well within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, an area which is completely off limits to commercial shipping. The impact holed the ship's hull, allowing seawater to damage its main engine. The impact also damaged the ship's rudder, and ruptured one of its fuel oil tanks, creating a leak (center image) which has released an oil slick two miles long .... so far. Heavy swells prevented the deployment of a boom which would have contained the oil. Those same swells have repeatedly lifted the vessel and then dropped it back against the reef, creating the potential for the ship to come apart, releasing all its fuel oil (800 tons) as well as its cargo of coal.

Such a scenario would be a catastrophe to the world's largest marine ecosystem, already under attack from pollution, shipping, over-fishing, outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish (which attack coral polyps), climate change, and general human abuse.

Australian authorities are considering imposing a fine of up to $5.5 million on the ship's owner, a state-owned company, along with other legal measures yet to be determined. Clear laws and certain repercussions for violation of those laws are a start, but only a start. We need a national and international paradigm shift in our generation and consumption of energy.

China is the world's leading consumer of coal, burning more than the Unitied States, the European Union and Japan combined. Toxic technology like coal-burning power plants and offshore drilling must be replaced by green, sustainable sources of energy. The technology, the brainpower, and the motiviation have been in place for decades. All that has been lacking is the courage to change, even in the face of monstrous corporate interests seeking to maintain their profit margins.

President Obama, are you listening? Leaders of the world, are you listening?

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