The Gulf oil spill, caused by the explosion of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig drilling a BP oil well in mile-deep water is the largest U.S. oil spill in history, bigger than the Exxon Valdez by far. Eleven workers were killed by the blast on the rig April 20, and the open well is gushing as many as 25,000 barrels of oil every day (though BP now says it is capturing 10,000 or more daily with its latest stopgap fix).
The oil slick has closed fishing grounds in federal or state waters off of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida; threatened birds and sea creatures; and led to federal restraints at least temporarily on new offshore oil drilling.
It's easy to feel hopeless in the face of such disaster. Taking action is one of the best antidotes for that feeling. What can individuals do to help?
If you live along the Gulf Coast and spot oil damage or wildlife in need of help, the government has set up these hotlines (along with a Website):
Don't attempt to help oiled wildlife without the help of professionals or trained volunteers.
Volunteers must be trained to be effective, and to avoid health problems that can result from handling oil and oiled wildlife. BP is paying many people to respond to the oil spill, and those workers typically include locals put out of work by the spill. So think twice before you "volunteer" because you don't want to take work away from a shrimper or a fishermen put out of work possibly for years by the spill. That said, the task of cleaning up, laying booms and cleansing what wildlife can be found is enormous.
Tristate Bird Rescue & Research is coordinating on-the-ground volunteer efforts. Several other groups are helping to organize volunteers to help cleanse birds and otherwise protect both wildlife and human populations along the Gulf Coast. Our favorite (since we just handed its president John Flicker a 2010 Heart of Green Award) is The National Audubon Society, which is helping connect volunteers with the best government or non-profit agency doing work related to the oil spill response. (But there are many many many others.) The government also has a volunteer hotline at 1-866-448-5816. Most organizations are referring volunteers to each state for detailed volunteer opportunities, which can change over time:
In general, organizations are urging people not to travel to volunteer.
Stay tuned, though. Organizations like the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences will need experienced bird-watchers this fall and for several years to monitor the health of shorebird populations. Volunteer opportunities like this will become available as needed.
While BP has pledged to pay all legitimate claims made in relation to the oil spill, the groups working in the area need immediate support (and there's no guarantee BP will pay every claim victims feel is worthy, especially since U.S. law caps some expenses at $75 million). Here's a list of some of the groups working on the oil spill that get three- and four-star ratings from charitynavigator.com.
You have to be careful that you can trust the source is uncontaminated, but remember that the western Gulf of Mexico remains open to fishing, as do some state waters that haven't been threatened by oil. In all about one-third of the Gulf remains open to commercial fishermen, and since certain species shrimp, oysters, crabs are hard to come by, some are turning to crawfish (that's "crayfish" to those of us living outside the region) and other freshwater species that haven't been contaminated. Seafood prices, particularly for Gulf staples like shrimp, oysters, red snapper and shark, are rising across the country, while Gulf fishermen are, largely, out of work. "There's a bit of an irony in that gulf seafood is less highly desired because people are worried about contamination even unfairly," said Douglas N. Rader, chief ocean scientist for Environmental Defense Fund. "The fishermen that remain in the Gulf aren't benefiting the way they could and should because of higher seafood prices."
There's nothing like a crisis to focus political will on environmental issues. At issue currently is a proposed expansion of offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters. President Obama made good on a campaign process and proposed the expansion, which is also believed to be a central compromise in the Senate energy bill developed by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. The BP oil spill shows how dire the consequences can be from a spill, and Obama has temporarily halted new offshore oil exploration. If you think offshore oil drilling is a bad idea, it's a good time to tell leaders what you think. Here's how:
While the oil spill has captured the attention of the American people, the most meaningful action one can take to address the long-term consequences of our dependency on oil (consequences that don't just include spills, but everything from global warming to political instability) is to stop using so much oil. You can use public transportation, carpool or bike more often than you drive. You can make your next car a fuel efficient car or even an electric vehicle. You can be mindful of the surprising products made from oil and strive to reduce gas consumption no matter what car you drive. If you live in the Northeast, particularly, and heat your home with oil, learn how to save energy at home. Learn where your electricity comes from, and urge industry and leaders to clean up old oil-fired power plants. And, of course, you can support comprehensive energy legislation that will move the nation from a dependence on fossil fuels like oil and coal to more renewable energy technologies, like wind, solar and geothermal.
While not many no major national organizations are calling for it, there's at least one Facebook page with more than 440,000 supporters suggesting that people boycott of BP, the oil company responsible not only for the Gulf oil spill, but also, in the last decade, a Texas refinery explosion and an Alaskan oil spill. Its safety procedures have been criticized, as have its response to this disaster and its lobbying efforts against stronger offshore oil safety and environmental rules. You'd have to boycott not only BP gas stations but also Arco gas stations, Castrol auto oils and lubricants, am/pm convenience stores and Wild Bean Cafes, Aral gas stations (in Germany), as well as countless products that BP oil is likely used to make, from plastics to pharmaceuticals. If you do boycott BP gas stations, be aware that you may be hurting local station owners more than the company itself.
For many people, an active boycott may not be a goal... but choosing which gas station to use when your tank is dry might inspire a boycott-like action.
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