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November 5, 2010

At Shedd, experts say American oil dependence spurred Deepwater spill

American oil dependence pushed the Deepwater oil rig to its breaking point, sending the American marine ecosystem into havoc, said a panel of oil experts at Shedd Aquarium Wednesday evening.

The panel, sponsored by the University of Chicago Program on Global Environment, discussed the future of America’s oil dependence and the effects of the spill in the Gulf. It was moderated by environmental researcher Reuben Keller, a lecturer at the U of C, and sponsored in conjunction with the Shedd Aquarium, which hosted the event.

The Deepwater spill has affected those far away from the site, including Chicago business owners—the Gulf produces 1.3 billion pounds of seafood annually, and the region’s oil sustains much of our domestic consumption. “The Gulf of Mexico is the gas station for this nation,” as well as its sushi bar, said Dr. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute of Texas A & M University.

Ihor Hlohowskyj, an environmental scientist from Argonne National Laboratory, opened the event with a discussion on the United States’ dependency on oil.

Hlohowskyj said American oil consumption has been increasing since the 1950s, and increases in production during the middle of the century couldn’t keep up. “As a result, we have had to import oil from foreign sources,” Hlohowskyj said.

And energy consumption is on the rise, according to Hlohowskyj. The majority of the United States’ energy usage is derived mainly from three fossil fuel sources: oil, natural gas, and coal. The Gulf accounts for 25 percent of all oil produced in the U.S. For the past few years, it has been producing around an average of 450 million barrels a year.

The Alaskan pipeline, a major source of domestic oil production, is expected to run dry in the near future, and troubled Gulf of Mexico fields have emerged as one of the most lucrative locations for extracting fossil fuels.

America’s urgent need to reduce its oil–trade gap forces it to press domestic sources to the breaking point, according to McKinney. “Every president has a national policy of moving away from the dependency on foreign oil,” McKinney said.

But none has delivered, and researchers say American oil dependence and complacent regulators contributed to the Gulf spill. McKinney said we have essentially “learned nothing” from previous oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez accident.

“Usually, you don’t associate success with oil spills,” said Dr. Ilze Berzins, a veterinarian at Shedd Aquarium, but she painted a more promising picture in terms of the extensive rescue efforts to save wildlife affected by the spill.

Scientists have identified 16,000 plant and animal species in the Gulf of Mexico, and Berzins, Shedd’s executive vice president for Animal Health, Conservation, Research and Education, emphasized that many organisms affected by oil spills fly under the public radar, unlike the familiar pictures of oil-soaked birds and water mammals.

“It’s not just what we see on the shores. The surface waters, the water calm, the bottom, the beaches, the wetlands, and estuaries are all impacted,” she said. Effects on fish spawning and toxicity issues for smaller animals are also a concern.

But rescue efforts in the Gulf have yielded results. As of November 2, about 1,200 sea turtles have been rescued and 400 have been released. Dogs trained to sniff out turtle eggs have helped locate over 29,000 eggs, of which 15,000 have been hatched and released.

Delicate ecosystems have been affected but McKinney has faith that these systems will recover. Although the extent of the damage is still unclear, he said prospects for wildlife look promising.

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