Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Other Oil Spill

On June 8th, Representative John Culberson of Texas released an open letter to President Obama, criticizing the administration’s six month moratorium on deep water oil drilling put in place after the April 20th sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. “I am concerned that the decision to impose the moratorium is based more on emotion than fact,” Culberson wrote. “The Deepwater Horizon incident was a terrible human tragedy with devastating environmental consequences, but it must be viewed in the proper historical context as a statistical anomaly. The government’s own records show that since 1985, more than 7 billion barrels of oil have been produced in federal offshore waters with less than 0.001 percent spilled – a 99.999% record for clean operations. That 25-year record of safety should not be ignored in the haste to respond to public discord.”

Culberson represents Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, which includes much of Houston and its western suburbs—the corporate epicenter for the American oil and gas industry. He is understandably concerned about the economic impact of the drilling moratorium. And there’s no doubt that shutting down deep water offshore drilling will have an economic impact. According to the Houston Business Journal, the moratorium has placed 33 rigs in mothballs and risks $1.8 billion dollars over six months, a figure the paper calls “in the conservative neighborhood.”

While small spills—a few barrels or so—in oil production are common, large ones are not. This rarity of spills of Deepwater Horizon magnitude was a central point made Tuesday by oil company executives while testifying before Congress. Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson called the spill an “unprecedented accident,” and claimed that “this incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deepwater drilling.” Or, as John Watson, CEO of Chevron observed, “It’s important to keep in mind that, as tragic and significant as this incident is, it occurred in an industry with a strong record for safety and environmental protection.”

But as tragic and devastating as this spill has been—to the Gulf environment, to livelihoods, to American culture—there’s been little talk about the less visible and entirely routine ways that our use of oil pollutes the world’s waters. Culberson’s focus on pollution from oil production alone takes an overly narrow view of the environmental impacts of our fossil fuel economy and misses the real story.

It’s impossible to know with 100% accuracy how much oil winds up in the world’s oceans, but in 2002, the National Research Council released “Oil in the Sea III,” an update of earlier studies and still the most comprehensive estimate of oil entering marine ecosystems. The results are surprising, and worth bearing in mind in the wake of the current ongoing disaster.

For starters, the total amount of oil believed to enter the world’s oceans is huge—some 9.5 million barrels a year.* For perspective, that’s just a bit more than the total volume of gasoline consumed in the U.S. in a single day, all dumped into the sea. (I’m using the NRC’s “best estimates,” but they actually give a range—and at the high end, they suppose it’s possible that as much as 60 million barrels of oil a year are deposited into global waters. Again, for perspective, that volume is roughly equivalent to a week’s worth of U.S. gasoline consumption.)

Worldwide, a mere 4% of marine oil pollution a year—or 366,000 barrels—comes from productions spills. This number includes spills from both oil rigs themselves and the miles of pipelines that connect them to shore. (This year’s numbers will surely be higher on account of Deepwater Horizon.)

But a much greater contribution comes not from people, but nature itself. About 4.4 million of these barrels—fully 45% of the total—comes from natural seepage. Cracks and fissures under water or near shores have always oozed petroleum, though usually very slowly and in geographically disparate places. These natural spills often have no adverse impact on the environment, and sometimes even help cultivate ecosystems that thrive on digesting petroleum. Natural seepages are not a new phenomenon either—on land, they are the very phenomena that introduced humans—from ancient Persians to Native Americans—to the substance of petroleum in the first place.

The remaining 51% gets more complicated. This volume, plus the 4% from offshore production and pipeline transportation noted above, or 55% of the total volume dumped, is almost entirely due to human activities. This amount of human contributions the NRC estimates to be roughly 5.225 million barrels.

Put that in perspective. On Tuesday, a team of American scientists increased the estimate of how much oil the BP Gulf spill is pumping into the water. It’s now believed to be somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day. With that estimate, since April 20th, this means the disaster has spilled somewhere between 2 and 3.5 million barrels—or between about a third and two-thirds of all the other average yearly human contributions to polluting our oceans with petroleum.

Said another way: every year, we collectively pour more oil than has probably yet leaked from the BP well into the world’s oceans.

Where does the rest of this yearly waste come from? About 32% is related to oil tankers and cargo vessels. Massive tankers often carry water as ballast in the same tanks that hold oil; emptying them out inevitably discharges oily residues. Most ships also dump large quantities of oil wastes from their engines. And of course, leaks and other accidents can release enormous quantities of oil. (Yet in the U.S., where the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster—spilling 270,000 barrels—has become the iconic oil tanker spill, since 1967, it actually comes in as only the 35th worst in the world. Bigger ones have just taken place far at sea or far from our continent.) But shipping discharges continue, year after year. This is price we now pay for global trade networks that support the importation of cheap oil and manufactured goods from overseas—in short, our modern consumer economy.

But big companies are not solely responsible for oil discharges from vessels. In the U.S. alone, over 40,000 barrels of oil—perhaps a day’s worth of the BP Gulf spill—is dumped into the sea from recreational vehicles like motor boats and jet skis.

Still more oil pours in to the sea from land. The NRC estimates that 11% of the total oil found in global waters—more than a million barrels—comes from runoff. This is all that waste produced by factories, refineries, waste treatment plants, and even those oily patches left by leaky car engines that appear on roads when it rains. It all eventually flows out to sea. And in the U.S., the contribution of industrial and consumer consumption accounts for about a third of the global total.

(It’s worth noting, though, that the contribution from runoff is actually the calculation with the most uncertainty in the whole estimate. I cite above the 11% or “more than a million barrels” as the NRC’s best estimate. The range—much larger than for other estimates, is actually huge. On the low end, they set the figure at 50,000 barrels. But on the high end, it’s a whopping 36 ½ million barrels—alone between 10 and 18 times the size of the BP Gulf spill.)

The balance of oil dumped into the sea comes from a variety of sources: residues from burning wood or fossil fuels, the dumping of fuel by aircraft, and even biological wastes from certain species like planktons. Added up, the impact may be huge.

When Representative Culberson focuses narrowly on oil spilled in offshore production, we are mislead about the broader context of all the other oil that winds up in the oceans. While it’s easy to wag a finger at oil companies (especially when they do appear to have chronic disregards for environmental protection and worker safety), we bear a collective responsibility for yearly deposits of more oil than the Deepwater Horizon leak has yet released.

There is no easy solution, yet recognizing how our daily choices matter is an essential first step. Oil tankers will continue to spill oil as long as there’s a demand for the stuff, and automobiles will leak oil as long as we’re driving with internal combustion engines. A shift away from these technological systems will take decades, and then, only with the creativity of private industry and a strong push from government (and not just this one).

But there are many actions we can take today. Think about the distances your food has traveled (with the help of oil), and consider shopping for locally grown products. If you can, bike to work, or use public transportation. In the winter, don’t overheat your home, and if you are able to, insulate it better. Pressure local factories to use cleaner manufacturing processes, and encourage politicians to put a price on dumping private wastes in public waters.

If we don’t make changes, or if we respond too narrowly to the disaster in the Gulf, we’ll miss dealing with the larger oil spill the modern world produces every year.

*NOTE: throughout this post, I converted the units used in the NRC report from tonnes (= metric tons) to barrels, a more familiar unit to most people. Since tonnes is a measure of mass and barrels of volume, I chose the common conversion factor of 7.33 barrels/tonne, which reflects a reasonable average of oil densities.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What’s Wrong with the Texas History Standards (It’s Not What You Think), Part I

On May 21, the Texas State Board of Education voted to adopt a new set of Social Studies standards for Texas public schools. The standards review process has been controversial for months, with critics accusing the board of politicizing the past and advancing a far right version of historical events. (The review has attracted national attention at least in part because of claims, perhaps too strong, that due to the size of the Texas textbook market, publishers will tailor their books for what Texas wants and just sell that version to the rest of the country.)

Much of the criticism directed at the State Board of Education is well deserved. But I want to suggest that the real problem with Texas’ standards transcends the particular examples most often cited in the press: the inclusion or exclusion of this or that historical figure, the blatant partisanship in crafting standard language and examples, and the injection of contemporary political battles into the past.

But first, the standard critiques.

In the buffoonish category, in January, the board expunged references to the classic children’s book author Bill Martin, Jr. (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? and a host of similar books) for Third Graders because they confused him with a DePaul University Philosopher, also named Bill Martin, who wrote a book on Marxism. (I’ve never seen reported that the actual children’s author Bill Martin also wrote Adam, Adam, What Do You See, a biblical story in the mode of the original and including references to Old and New Testament figures To his credit, board member Don McLeroy admitted the error (he called it “embarrassing”) and admitted the lack of research behind the decision. The full board later restored the original Bill Martin.

In the distorted category, there’s no issue more striking than the faith of the founders and the historical place of religion in American history—a particular focus of the conservative bloc on the board. One new standard passed in May asks students to “[e]xamine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase ‘separation of church and state’.”. The intent here is to suggest that the First Amendment does not in fact, guarantee the separation of church and state. I call this a distorted provision because it misrepresents how historians understand change over time: not whether later actions or ideas hold water to some original pronouncement, but how broad ideas have been contested. That’s the essence of history. (I started writing about the faith of the founders in my first post here.)

Some board actions can only be described as attempting to use history very selectively to impart a politically partisan message. In March, for instance, the board adopted an amendment on teaching the Civil Rights movement offered by Don McLeroy that included a clause instructing students to “describe the role of individuals and groups that sought to maintain the status quo, such as governors George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox, and including the Congressional bloc of southern Democrats.” This specificity was hardly random; Wallace, Faubus, and Maddox were all Democratic governors (of Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, respectively). The intent here is clear: to associate Democratic (big-D) officials with opposition to black Civil Rights.

Additionally, the board replaced all instances of the phrase “democratic society” with “constitutional republic.” As David Barton, one of the board’s outside reviewers, explained in his critique of the existing standards: “Because America is correctly identified as a republic and not as a democracy, the derivative of this is that ‘republican’ rather than ‘democratic’ is the proper adjective – that is, we have “republican” values or “republican” process rather than ‘democratic’ values or process.” This change is either one of deliberate political partisanship (Barton is a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party) or an example of blatant ignorance of American history—which has been shaped in no small part by arguments over the nature of democracy itself (for white men with property? all white men? men? men and women both? through popular elections or intermediaries like state legislatures appointing Senators or the electoral college electing presidents? for citizens of a state or of the country as a whole?) It’s no accident that the local organizations that sprung up in support of Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the 19th century were known as Democratic-Republican societies or that the first truly national party to emerge in the 19th century around Andrew Jackson was Democratic—both Jefferson and Jackson appealed to a mass of Americans to see themselves as the proper heirs of the revolution and the nation. The fight over the meaning of American democracy can only be expunged by doing violence to an understanding of the past.

Nevertheless, some of the criticism directed at the board has been misplaced or exaggerated.

Among the most common examples cited in the press, two stand out the most. The first is the new standard requiring that students studying late 20th century history learn about such influential conservative groups as the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association, and legislative programs like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, according to ABC’s Nightline, “with no liberal counterbalance.”

But history does not require conservative and liberal balance. It requires an honest explanation of change over time. That means representing every historical actor and view required to understand historical change. It does not require an “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentation. Not to say that there haven’t been important liberal organizations in the late 20th century, but the big political story of this period was the rise of modern conservatism, and this subject has been the focus of a number of important recent works, among them histories of free market right, the rise of anti-regulation sentiment among the blue collar ranks of truck drivers, the emergence of modern political divisiveness, the emergence of the modern right and its political dominance, and biographies of the influential author Ann Rand. Students should learn about the rise of the modern right—provided it isn’t a one-sided view.

Another example concerns new provisions that students read the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s address is almost entirely about slavery, with the emphatic declaration at the opening that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” On the other hand, Davis’ address makes no mention of slavery whatsoever, speaking only vaguely about the violation of southern rights and the principles of consent of the governed. Is this a poor assignment?

This is touchy subject. In some sense, primary documents (which I often assign in my own classes) are inherently tricky—students are necessarily reading these documents out of context. Historical texts do not speak for themselves—they are produced at precise moments with specific references that are gradually forgotten over time and can only be restored to some approximation of their meaning by careful historical research and insightful teaching. That contextualization is certainly possible in this assignment. In the context of Confederate foreign relations, for example, Jeff Davis claimed in his address that for the Confederacy, as “[a]n agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of commodities required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest and that of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities”—of course, that’s “the fewest practicable restrictions” on trade, not the enslaved people responsible for much of southern agriculture. Studying Jeff Davis ought not to be off limits to historical study—and in fact, the young W.E.B. DuBois produced just the kind of historical contextualization of Davis that is appropriate for the classroom, offering “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization”—a simultaneously noble and vile civilization—as his student commencement address at Harvard in 1890.

The list of partisan changes as well as overblown ones could easily be continued—check out the Texas Freedom Network’s blog for the most detailed coverage I have located, as well as the Texas Education Agency’s own site for many of the draft documents and reviews along the way.

But there is something broader that’s wrong with Texas’ new standards. For more, stay tuned.