Most of the points I mentioned on Northwest Environment Watch’s blog about the recent devastating oil spill in southern Puget Sound also apply to the Unalaska spill now unfolding in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Here’s a recap of the most relevant points, with an addition.

  1. Like the death toll in the Middle East and the melting of the Northwest’s glaciers, these spills show us the true cost of oil — which is far higher even than the prices in this year’s world oil market.
  2. The spilled petroleum is ship fuel, not a product being transported on a tanker. Parts of the shipping industry are holdovers from the bad old days of dirty fuel, dirty engines, and careless practices. The “bunker fuel” they burn is literally the dregs of oil refining: the polluting crud that’s left over after gasoline, diesel, and other products are “cracked” out of crude. In recent years, shipping has finally begun to get the attention it deserves from the press and environmental regulators, both to its air pollution and to the sewage dumped by cruise ships. But it’s still in the days cars were in before catalytic converters.
  1. The mammoth danger is the spill of oil from tankers, but the world’s oceans suffer more oil — in total barrels — from spills of ships’ own fuel than from tankers. In most years, spills such as that now unfolding in Alaska put several times as much oil in the water as do tanker spills. It’s not that tankers are so safe; it’s that there are so many other ships.
  2. Our methods of economic accounting are so perverse that they will tally the spills as a plus in the 2004 Gross Domestic Product. The reason is that all the money spent on cleaning up the spill will show up in the GDP figures, but the ecological losses suffered are off the books.
  3. Every single day, we send oil spills into the environment. They’re just invisible. I’m talking about the cloud of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from combustion of our daily dose of petroleum products: currently more than 20 million gallons in the Pacific Northwest alone. Over time, this daily oil spill has consequences just as heart-wrenching as the Puget Sound and Aleutian spills.
  4. Catastrophic spills — ship on the rocks, black ooze in the water, dying birds on the beach — capture the TV cameras and headlines. But most of the oil we spill runs off the land, from roads, parking lots, and industrial sites. In 2003, the National Research Council did an assessment of oil spills over recent years. Human-released oil reaching marine waters around North America has been 56 percent run off from land, the drips from our vehicles and machinery. Spills from big ships, whether tankers or freighters, has been around 10 percent.

The ecological impacts of chronic low-level exposure to petroleum are little understood, unlike the well-studied effects of bathing small patches of ocean and shore with oil. But lacing marine food chains with substances that are known poisons at high concentrations, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sure seems like a bad idea to me. It’s an example of one of our society’s greatest failings: ignoring the precautionary principle — the practice of proving safety first. Of course, great failings are also great opportunities.